Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Saints, or a Bar of Platinum

Which might have as subtitle, "Unrolling or Walking - or a Form?"

Saturday, as you may know, is the feast of All Saints, and until the canonisation of Frances and Gilbert is achieved, must serve as our "feast day" to commemorate them as well as all the others who have attained heaven. Note: In no way do I imply any anticipation of the judgements of the Church; I fully submit to her authority on the matter of their sanctity. But I do have an opinion on the topic. GKC and FBC are most remarkable models, and most unexpected by so many notions of "saints" and "sanctity". You see, we tend to expect that a saint has a certain appearance - but that's silly. Just look at the chunky sedentary megawriter named Aquinas and the gaunt bouncy nah-I'm-too-busy-to-read John Bernardone... Who's that, you ask? It's a trick; we know him under his nickname. Here's a hint: he's the only other saint GKC wrote a book about. Of course he did write poems - the great Canticle of the Creatures is just about as Thomistic a piece of tech stuff as you'll find! And Aquinas, for all his bulk, walked across Europe at least twice or so - from Italy to Cologne to Paris to Rome, and perhaps to England - not necessarily in that order.

So what is a saint? A saint is a human who has attained heaven, by spending his time on earth striving to somehow approach a certain form - the form of the Master. In Genesis, we are told we are "made in the image and likeness of God"; in the gospels we are told we must turn, or convert, and - what? And become like little children. [Mt 18:3] We need to "get in shape" - a mystical shape, given the two examples I have suggested - but one which they both attained, and one which we also called to work for.

This sense of an exemplar - a role model - a mentor - a teacher - a master - all these terms point towards something which is (1) not ourselves, (2) fixed in its character (3) and a measure to which we are held. Some years ago, there was a lot of debate about measurement. The committees eventually decided on a bunch of new units of measure, centered about the unit of length called the "meter" - supposedly one ten-millionth of earth's meridian quadrant at sea level. This "metric" system (from the Greek metron = "measure, quantity") was finally epitomised in a bar made of hard, heavy and precious metal, which measured the ideal or "standard" meter, and kept in Sèvres, France; they were made in 1793, and served for some years as the great exemplar for the whole world. It was kept in a safe place, in a vacuum, so it would not change. Nowadays we do it differently; if you wish to know more you can visit the ISO, the International Organization for Standardization. But as an idea, this old "standard meter" is still a standard, as it tells us something about saints - and about this week's portion of Orthodoxy.

((click here to read more))

It is very interesting to note some of the parallels of the saints to the famous bar-of-platinum "meter". For one thing, the ISO can in some ways be considered the Vatican of science. You may laugh, but it is true: it is not simply international, but supernational - hee hee - no, I did not say supernatural! Its work is intended to benefit - indeeed, to serve - all the world. For another, the standard meter bar was made of rare and precious metals, (platinum, according to one source, or possibly a mixture of the platinides) - this was not to make it impossible to reproduce, but because the material chosen had the desired property of being stable. It would not rust, or deteriorate, or get attacked by bacteria, or fade in sunlight, or be changed by any earthly agent. The place where it was kept was held at a constant temperature so that it would not vary as the weather grew warmer or colder - and it was kept in a "protected" place - not to forbid access, for that was the point of having such a thing - but to keep it beyond the reach of any who might wish to meddle with it (though platinum is so hard it would be foolish to attempt filing it or anything like that.)

What's the point of this discussion? To stimulate interest in science, or drum up new members for the ISO? Well, there aren't lots of Chestertonian scientists, so I do hope some of our Chestertonian lit'ry friends will be inspired to learn a little about my field - after all, I busy myself in their world, as you see! But no. It is because the next few paragraphs of Orthodoxy delve into how this sense of measurement and standardisation link in to GKC's thought and his struggles to understand the world, and Christianity. Recall that last time we heard about the mess that some of GKC's intellectual opponents - people like Darwin or Nietzsche - have made: the mess that centers on certain words, almost the precise opposite of measure and standard:
We need not debate about the mere words evolution or progress: personally I prefer to call it reform. For reform implies form. It implies that we are trying to shape the world in a particular image; to make it something that we see already in our minds. Evolution is a metaphor from mere automatic unrolling. Progress is a metaphor from merely walking along a road - very likely the wrong road. But reform is a metaphor for reasonable and determined men: it means that we see a certain thing out of shape and we mean to put it into shape. And we know what shape.
OK, words! (That sounds like King Azaz in The Phantom Tollbooth.) Here we go: "evolution" is from the Latin ex+volvo = "I roll out, unroll". Progress is ultimately from the Latin gradior = "I step, walk". It would be perhaps a bit contentious to deal with the term "Reformation" just now - perhaps we can consider that in another posting someday. But if you wish to have a hint of how GKC really thought about this here you go:
Modern critics have congratulated Chaucer, or congratulated themselves, on the fact that he was so enlightened a reformer as to satirize the Monk and the Friar. Curiously enough, they have neglected to notice what he satirized them for. Rather simple things of this sort do often get overlooked. And the simple truth is that Chaucer satirizes the Monk for not being sufficiently Monastic. He may have been right or wrong; but it is certain that if he was right, the Reformers of the Reformation were wrong; and only on the assumption that they were wrong can we pretend that he was in any sense right. The point is rather practical; because nearly all studies of this period are full of the suggestion that Chaucer, like his contemporary Wycliffe, was a sort of morning star of the Reformation. We can only answer that in that case he was an eccentric star who wanted the sun to move backwards instead of forwards. In the whole of his satirical sketch of the Monk, the point is, not that the Monk is sunk in monkish superstitions, but simply that the Monk is not monkish enough. Protestantism, as it ultimately developed, professed to free monks and nuns from the prison of the cloister. It welcomed runaway monks and nuns to the freedom of the secular world; even when their conduct was rather alarmingly free and somewhat startlingly secular. But all Chaucer's denunciation is directed, not so much at a monk, as at a runaway monk; and that not because he is a monk but because he is a runaway.
[GKC Chaucer CW18:343]
Very much to the point, as we shall see.
Now here comes in the whole collapse and huge blunder of our age. We have mixed up two different things, two opposite things. Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to suit the vision. Progress does mean (just now) that we are always changing the vision. It should mean that we are slow but sure in bringing justice and mercy among men: it does mean that we are very swift in doubting the desirability of justice and mercy: a wild page from any Prussian sophist makes men doubt it. Progress should mean that we are always walking towards the New Jerusalem. It does mean that the New Jerusalem is always walking away from us. We are not altering the real to suit the ideal. We are altering the ideal: it is easier.
What is "the New Jerusalem"? It is one of GKC's travel books which he wrote after his trip tot he Holy Land. (You can find it in CW20.) But GKC is referring to this:
And I, John, saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
[Apocalypse/Revelation 21:1 et seq]
To put it another way, it's hard to get anywhere if you keep changing the destination as you travel. But as usual, GKC gives us an example for our amusement, and links it in:
Silly examples are always simpler; let us suppose a man wanted a particular kind of world; say, a blue world. He would have no cause to complain of the slightness or swiftness of his task; he might toil for a long time at the transformation; he could work away (in every sense) until all was blue. He could have heroic adventures; the putting of the last touches to a blue tiger. He could have fairy dreams; the dawn of a blue moon. But if he worked hard, that high-minded reformer would certainly (from his own point of view) leave the world better and bluer than he found it. If he altered a blade of grass to his favourite colour every day, he would get on slowly. But if he altered his favourite colour every day, he would not get on at all. If, after reading a fresh philosopher, he started to paint everything red or yellow, his work would be thrown away: there would be nothing to show except a few blue tigers walking about, specimens of his early bad manner. This is exactly the position of the average modern thinker. It will be said that this is avowedly a preposterous example. But it is literally the fact of recent history. The great and grave changes in our political civilization all belonged to the early nineteenth century, not to the later. They belonged to the black and white epoch when men believed fixedly in Toryism, in Protestantism, in Calvinism, in Reform, and not unfrequently in Revolution. And whatever each man believed in he hammered at steadily, without scepticism: and there was a time when the Established Church might have fallen, and the House of Lords nearly fell. It was because Radicals were wise enough to be constant and consistent; it was because Radicals were wise enough to be Conservative. But in the existing atmosphere there is not enough time and tradition in Radicalism to pull anything down. There is a great deal of truth in Lord Hugh Cecil's suggestion (made in a fine speech) that the era of change is over, and that ours is an era of conservation and repose. But probably it would pain Lord Hugh Cecil if he realized (what is certainly the case) that ours is only an age of conservation because it is an age of complete unbelief. Let beliefs fade fast and frequently, if you wish institutions to remain the same. The more the life of the mind is unhinged, the more the machinery of matter will be left to itself. The net result of all our political suggestions, Collectivism, Tolstoyanism, Neo-Feudalism, Communism, Anarchy, Scientific Bureaucracy - the plain fruit of all of them is that the Monarchy and the House of Lords will remain. The net result of all the new religions will be that the Church of England will not (for heaven knows how long) be disestablished. It was Karl Marx, Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Cunninghame Grahame, Bernard Shaw and Auberon Herbert, who between them, with bowed gigantic backs, bore up the throne of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Well - why Canterbury? it's not very ISO of Chesterton to say this - that is, it does not sound very Catholic. However, Canterbury was the origin point of Christianity in England, and the first English bishop was sent there by Pope St. Gregory the Great - St. Augustine (No, not Monica's son, the bishop of Hippo, who died in 430; this is the other St. Augustine, who died about 605!) Remember, also - in 1908 GKC was still about 14 years away from his home-coming, and he had been brought into Anglican practice by his dear wife Frances (she also became Catholic later). But this clash of Anglican vs. Roman ought not distract us here. Recall these critical words from his preface to The Everlasting Man, just as true for our present text: "this study is not specially concerned with the differences between a Catholic and a Protestant" [CW2:141] No, indeed; it is hilarious to imagine these arch-heretics holding up any episcopal throne (no pun intended). GKC goes on to demonstrate his point:
We may say broadly that free thought is the best of all the safeguards against freedom. Managed in a modern style the emancipation of the slave's mind is the best way of preventing the emancipation of the slave. Teach him to worry about whether he wants to be free, and he will not free himself. Again, it may be said that this instance is remote or extreme. But, again, it is exactly true of the men in the streets around us. It is true that the negro slave, being a debased barbarian, will probably have either a human affection of loyalty, or a human affection for liberty. But the man we see every day - the worker in Mr. Gradgrind's factory, the little clerk in Mr. Gradgrind's office - he is too mentally worried to believe in freedom. He is kept quiet with revolutionary literature. He is calmed and kept in his place by a constant succession of wild philosophies. He is a Marxian one day, a Nietzscheite the next day, a Superman (probably) the next day; and a slave every day. The only thing that remains after all the philosophies is the factory. The only man who gains by all the philosophies is Gradgrind. It would be worth his while to keep his commercial helotry supplied with sceptical literature. And now I come to think of it, of course, Gradgrind is famous for giving libraries. He shows his sense. All modern books are on his side. As long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same. No ideal will remain long enough to be realized, or even partly realized. The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will always change his mind.
Who is Gradgrind? He's a character in Dickens' Hard Times;I do not know this story, but it is easy enough to get the sense from the context. If you'd like a bit more, here you go:
The twin root facts of the revolution called Dickens are these: first, that he attacked the cold Victorian compromise; second, that he attacked it without knowing he was doing it - certainly without knowing that other people were doing it. He was attacking something which we will call Mr. Gradgrind.
[GKC The Victorian Age in Literature CW15:456]

[Dickens] seems quite unconscious of the obvious truth, that the backwardness of Catholics was simply the refusal of Bob Cratchit to enter the house of Gradgrind. ... He describes Bounderby and Gradgrind with a degree of grimness and sombre hatred very different from the half affectionate derision which he directed against the old tyrants or humbugs of the earlier nineteenth century...
[GKC Appreciations and Criticisms of the Works of Charles Dickens CW15:292,362]
Now, I must touch on what might be a sensitive matter: please be careful not to read something into the term "negro slave" here - if you do, you ought to read it again, and see just what GKC has said, and compare this to the Gradgrind matter - and then to the larger thrust of the argument.

I am out of time for today, and must break off here, though the argument continues into the following paragraphs. I shall give you just the first line, since it gives the key thought for you to have today:
This, therefore, is our first requirement about the ideal towards which progress is directed; it must be fixed.
You must also have the companion argument, which is GKC's version of the whole point of the ISO meter-bar, and a wonderful conclusion for you to consider until next time:
Men can construct a science with very few instruments, or with very plain instruments; but no one on earth could construct a science with unreliable instruments. A man might work out the whole of mathematics with a handful of pebbles, but not with a handful of clay which was always falling apart into new fragments, and falling together into new combinations. A man might measure heaven and earth with a reed, but not with a growing reed.
[GKC Heretics CW1:117]


  1. Good job, well done.

    It seems to me as if we could make some sort of code for the moving ideals of the day out of that blue tiger comment. Something like, "Oh no! The blue tiger needs repainting!" or "There goes the blue tiger, off to sulk" or some such nonsense.

    Thanks, Dr.T.

  2. Actually, Dr. T, Gradgrind is a character in Hard Times.

    "I want nothing but Facts ... Plant nothing else, and root out everything else."

  3. Thanks, anon. You are indeed correct, according to the Dickens I have, and I have revised my text.

    Those of you who may have CW11 ought to turn to page 507 and revise the footnote as follows:
    "These three are characters in novels by Dickens:
    Pardiggle in Bleak House,
    Bumble in Oliver Twist,
    Gradgrind in Hard Times."

    Any Dickens enthusiasts can add further details as they see fit.

    Thanks again for assisting us!

  4. Death to the metric system! It is, to quote the mighty Gilbert, "standardization by a low standard".

  5. Roy, Roy! I know you too well to think you will misunderstand my reply... those of us who have dealt with "bosh" in a ballade cannot be at odds with each other.

    But... as much as you may dislike the metric system, I wonder if this may be a stretch of GKC's thought - for he applied those words not to the metric system, nor even to science - but to art and culture:

    "To put it shortly, the evil I am trying to warn you of is not excessive democracy, it is not excessive ugliness, it is not excessive anarchy. It might be stated thus: It is standardisation by a low standard. ... That danger of standardisation by a low standard seems to me to be the chief danger confronting us on the artistic and cultural side and generally on the intellectual side at this moment."
    [GKC, Culture and the Coming Peril]

    Moreover, you are using the internet to communicate even now, and so must conform to a whole bevy of standards - or you cannot use it. That is all covered in the famous quote from St. Thomas Aquinas about how no sceptics work sceptically. (CW2:542] And you are far beyond the reach of that error.

    But regardless of whether one uses the metric system, or ounces and gallons (or is it pounds?) and miles and inches, and all the panoply of odd traditional measures, the simple point I am making is still the same thing as GKC made in Heretics. The ISO happens to provide a grand example of this idea, and people bow to them who would never be caught bowing to some other inter- (or super-) national authority, like the one based in that little town on the Tiber.

    --Dr. Thursday

    PS. As useful as metric is, there are several things I happen to detest about it. For example, I think it wrong to have changed "cycles per second" to "hertz", "centigrade" to "celsius"; they have not given over the length, weight and time units over to persons, why change those? And then to have dropped the degree sign for temperature in degrees Kelvin? But then I am not in the ISO. (Not yet, anyway... when I do get in, I intend to add a new measure, to be called the "Chesterton" which shall be the unit of paradox. Hee hee.)

    PPS. Don't forget there is a unit called the "gilbert", a METRIC measure (in the CGS system) of magnetomotive force, equivalent to 10 over four pi ampere-turns. Yes, there is, I can show where it says. Hee hee!

    PPPS. I will NEVER metric many things, the units of common English. I will not change the mystic and longest word "smiles" to "skilometers". I refuse to kilogram my fist on the table or centimeter my way to a conclusion. But I have drank my beer from a beaker graduated in milliliters, it seems so - er - mad scientist a thing to do. Hee hee.


Join our FaceBook fan page today!