Thursday, November 13, 2008

Some Very Serious Stuff - and Some Laughing

If you have been following along with our exploration of Chesterton's Orthodoxy, by now you should expect the most serious and meaty matters to be interlayered with a light and crisp crust of humour. (I am sorry, but yes I am writing this before lunch again.) And this week's episode is particularly dense and chewy. We are not quite finished with the rebuttal of the all-too-modern fixation on "change" (get that pun? Hee hee!) - today we are going to see how dangerous it can be as a foundation of quicksand. And, if you are thinking that somehow this and last week's discussions are veiled commentaries on certain - er - recent political events, you may think as you like, but you can see our weekly progress through the book, and you know full well that GKC's book was written 100 years ago. But some predictions are quite natural to any serious work, like Euclid or Newton, like Aristotle or Aquinas - for the simple reason that all real (authentic, efficient, effective, productive) sciences produce discoveries. We have explored this before, not all that long ago: "scientists are proud of the complexity of science. It shows how rich it is in discoveries. If it is right at all, it is a compliment to say that it's elaborately right." [CW1:287] We have a right to be proud of Chesterton's work, because he has told us what to expect - and we are seeing it unfold. This is perhaps somewhat uncomfortable - people thought he was quite crazy when he gave warnings about what Hitler was up to. Chesterton died in 1936, and people still didn't believe him - in fact, were still calling him anti-Semitic - but his warnings went unheeded. Please note: I am not the one to explore this matter in detail, but I suspect several important papers, if not entire doctorates in history, might be found in GKC's attempt to give an early warning of the coming peril. Nor can I spend more time here on the amazing parallel to our present situation. I can give you no better tools to assist you (short of prayer and such serious weaponry as the rosary) than to help you understand what Chesterton said. You will have to do the rest.

Did I just say "Hitler"? It has become almost a standard complaint from the media that when they disagree with someone, they claim he unfairly drags in Hitler. I have not dragged in Hitler. He comes in with Darwin, as one of the chief implementors of Darwinian philosophy: "nature gets rid of what she doesn't like, so we can do the same." That, of course, is not what scientists mean when they speak about conservation of certain DNA sequences, or the repetition of parental phenotype by progeny - which is how the science of evolution works. But, as we saw recently, the word was taken out of context and mangled, just as "relativity" was mangled, when it went into other disciplines, and when it was grabbed by other kinds of philosophy.

Why does this matter, and why does GKC go into this (as we are about to see) in a book purportedly about Christianity? Because he is faced with one of the ultimate questions of life, phrased long ago in Psalm 8: "What is Man, that You are mindful of him?" To put it another way: how am I, a man, to treat other men? Do other people matter, or don't they? How am I supposed to act?

Ah. When one does not have a dogmatic reason to believe (yes, believe) that every individual man is of infinite worth - which is the Christian teaching, some other dogma (like "evolutionism" or "relativism") fills in the void, and responds "you can do as you please - because YOU are better than he is." Better because you are more evolved, or better in some relative sense (you are lighter, darker, smarter, richer, own more, read more... you know, "better"). Which will it be?

So yes, this is serious, and worth examining. And yes, there will be some laughing, though it comes in at the end. Laughter is not only the best medicine - it is also a very powerful weapon against error.

(( click here to proceed ))

You may also be wondering why this topic seems to be going on for a while. That's because it needs some careful study, since the world is complex, and appears to be even more complex the more we study it. And this reveals an important truth, as GKC proceeds to tell us:
I passed on to the next necessity of any ideal of progress. Some people (as we have said) seem to believe in an automatic and impersonal progress in the nature of things. But it is clear that no political activity can be encouraged by saying that progress is natural and inevitable; that is not a reason for being active, but rather a reason for being lazy. If we are bound to improve, we need not trouble to improve. The pure doctrine of progress is the best of all reasons for not being a progressive. But it is to none of these obvious comments that I wish primarily to call attention.

The only arresting point is this: that if we suppose improvement to be natural, it must be fairly simple. The world might conceivably be working towards one consummation, but hardly towards any particular arrangement of many qualities. To take our original simile: Nature by herself may be growing more blue; that is, a process so simple that it might be impersonal. But Nature cannot be making a careful picture made of many picked colours, unless Nature is personal. If the end of the world were mere darkness or mere light it might come as slowly and inevitably as dusk or dawn. But if the end of the world is to be a piece of elaborate and artistic chiaroscuro, then there must be design in it, either human or divine. The world, through mere time, might grow black like an old picture, or white like an old coat; but if it is turned into a particular piece of black and white art - then there is an artist.
[CW1:315-6, emphasis added]
You may get a hint from the word "design" here that there is more to explore - but not today. (You can footnote it for future reference.) Ah, an interesting tech term from art: "chiaroscuro" is the Italian for "light-dark" - it is a type of painting using only light and shade, omitting colour. This is a very strong, powerful insight, and Chesterton's own way of "baptising" the pagans. (I wonder if this is not an "Argument From Art" about the existence of God...) GKC sees Person within Nature - not Nature personified, but Person painting Nature - and he brings to this splendid insight a real sense of true art, both creative and practical. We are at one of the points where our text is running almost parallel with his 1925 masterwork, The Everlasting Man, when he considers
...the treatment of the problem of evil. It is easy enough to make a plan of life of which the background is black, as the pessimists do; and then admit a speck or two of star-dust more or less accidental, or at least in the literal sense insignificant. And it is easy enough to make another plan on white paper, as the Christian Scientists do, and explain or explain away somehow such dots or smudges as may be difficult to deny. Lastly it is easiest of all, perhaps, to say as the dualists do, that life is like a chessboard in which the two are equal; and can as truly be said to consist of white squares on a black board or of black squares on a white board. But every man feels in his heart that none of these three paper plans is like life; that none of these worlds is one in which he can live. Something tells him that the ultimate idea of a world is not bad or even neutral; staring at the sky or the grass or the truths of mathematics or even a new-laid egg, he has a vague feeling like the shadow of that saying of the great Christian philosopher, St. Thomas Aquinas, "Every existence, as such, is good." On the other hand, something else tells him that it is unmanly and debased and even diseased to minimise evil to a dot or even a blot. He realises that optimism is morbid. It is if possible even more morbid than pessimism. These vague but healthy feelings, if he followed them out, would result in the idea that evil is in some way an exception but an enormous exception; and ultimately that evil is an invasion or yet more truly a rebellion. He does not think that everything is right or that everything is wrong, or that everything is equally right and wrong. But he does think that right has a right to be right and therefore a right to be there; and wrong has no right to be wrong and therefore no right to be there. It is the prince of the world; but it is also a usurper. So he will apprehend vaguely what the vision will give to him vividly; no less than all that strange story of treason in heaven and the great desertion by which evil damaged and tried to destroy a cosmos that it could not create. It is a very strange story and its proportions and its lines and colours are as arbitrary and absolute as the artistic composition of a picture. It is a vision which we do in fact symbolise in pictures by titanic limbs and passionate tints of plumage; all that abysmal vision of falling stars and the peacock panoplies of the night. But that strange story has one small advantage over the diagrams. It is like life.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:376-7; for the Aquinas quote see Summa Contra Gentiles IIIb C107 3 or Summa Theologica I Q5 A3, Q48 A1 and Q49 A1]]
I grant you that this was rather a long excerpt, and somewhat distracting, but I think you need to ponder this black and white issue. (Am I talking about race? Yes, the human race, in part - but there's something far larger here. Remember we are dealing with thought and with reality. Don't lose the path here because we've stopped to look at things.)

And now, as we would expect, just when it seems we're getting lost in a collection of philosophical matters, GKC gives us an example:
If the distinction be not evident, I give an ordinary instance. We constantly hear a particularly cosmic creed from the modern humanitarians; I use the word humanitarian in the ordinary sense, as meaning one who upholds the claims of all creatures against those of humanity. They suggest that through the ages we have been growing more and more humane, that is to say, that one after another, groups or sections of beings, slaves, children, women, cows, or what not, have been gradually admitted to mercy or to justice. They say that we once thought it right to eat men (we didn't); but I am not here concerned with their history, which is highly unhistorical. As a fact, anthropophagy is certainly a decadent thing, not a primitive one. It is much more likely that modern men will eat human flesh out of affectation than that primitive man ever ate it out of ignorance. I am here only following the outlines of their argument, which consists in maintaining that man has been progressively more lenient, first to citizens, then to slaves, then to animals, and then (presumably) to plants. I think it wrong to sit on a man. Soon, I shall think it wrong to sit on a horse. Eventually (I suppose) I shall think it wrong to sit on a chair. That is the drive of the argument. And for this argument it can be said that it is possible to talk of it in terms of evolution or inevitable progress. A perpetual tendency to touch fewer and fewer things might - one feels, be a mere brute unconscious tendency, like that of a species to produce fewer and fewer children. This drift may be really evolutionary, because it is stupid.
If you do not know enough Greek to catch the roots, "anthropophagy" means the practice of eating humans (phage+anthropos). We heard about this last week in the "Salt" reference, but now we hear an even more distorted form - and yet, that is what is contained in the idea of "progress".

Now, if you weren't already in a state because of the mention of Hitler, you will perhaps really find GKC's next paragraph upsetting. But you need to recall that there is a vast difference between (1) the authentic science which explores how measurable traits in a parent relate to the same traits in the offspring (which is evolution, a science) and (2) the view that some people are better, higher, more evolved than others (which is evolutionism, or Darwinism, a philosophy). We cannot go into the deeper aspects of these things today, but if you are anxious to learn more, I recommend the chapter "Critic of Evolutionism" in Jaki's Chesterton a Seer of Science, available through the ACS. With that in mind, then:
Darwinism can be used to back up two mad moralities, but it cannot be used to back up a single sane one. The kinship and competition of all living creatures can be used as a reason for being insanely cruel or insanely sentimental; but not for a healthy love of animals. On the evolutionary basis you may be inhumane, or you may be absurdly humane; but you cannot be human. That you and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger. Or it may be a reason for being as cruel as the tiger. It is one way to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate the tiger. But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat a tiger reasonably, that is, to admire his stripes while avoiding his claws.
You must wonder if Mr. Watterson, who drew the comic "Calvin and Hobbes" had read this! But note: there is a middle way. I don't recall if I gave you a link to this matter when we were dealing with the idea of exalting the extremes - remember, about liking red and white, and having a "healthy hatred of pink"? This is the same thing, but applied to a harder topic - the tiger. When Calvin first caught Hobbes in his tiger trap, he asked his father what to do - and Calvin's dad yelled, "Calvin I'm busy. Take it home and stuff it!" (the next frame shows Calvin making tuna fish sandwiches for Hobbes, hee hee.) GKC is not too busy to tell us what to do:
If you want to treat a tiger reasonably, you must go back to the garden of Eden. For the obstinate reminder continued to recur: only the supernatural has taken a sane view of Nature. The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate. This gives to the typically Christian pleasure in this earth a strange touch of lightness that is almost frivolity. Nature was a solemn mother to the worshippers of Isis and Cybele. Nature was a solemn mother to Wordsworth or to Emerson. But Nature is not solemn to Francis of Assisi or to George Herbert. To St. Francis, Nature is a sister, and even a younger sister: a little, dancing sister, to be laughed at as well as loved.
GKC mentions two pagan nature goddesses: Isis of Egypt and Cybele of Anatolia; two recent poets: William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) - and then two other poets, whom might properly be called religious. George Herbert (1593-1633) and Francis of Assisi (1181 or 1182-1226). I had a difficult time finding GKC mention George Herbert, but "There is nothing in recent literature to make anyone feel that sweeping a room is fine, as in George Herbert." [ILN Jul 24 1909CW24:364] AMBER found only eight references, though there are over two pages of quotes from Herbert in Bartlett's, and a very casual glance suggests GKC quotes some of them, as usual without attribution. As you know, GKC wrote a whole book about St. Francis (found in CW2) - and I save him for last since if you really want to grasp what GKC is saying you need to get out the excellent poem of St. Francis called "The Canticle of the Creatures". There, you will find a list ("The greatest of poems is an inventory." [CW1:267]) of various natural items - if you found it in the Bible, you would suspect you were in the Psalms (e.g. 135(136)); if you were an ancient pagan, you would think it was a list of the gods and goddesses. But no - for St. Francis calls the sun his Bro... well, read it for yourself:
Most high, all-powerful, all good, Lord!
All praise is yours, all glory, all honor
And all blessing.

To you alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy
To pronounce your name.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made,
And first my lord Brother Sun,
Who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.

How beautiful is he, how radiant in all his splendor!
Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Moon and Stars;
In the heavens you have made them, bright
And precious and fair.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
And fair and stormy, all the weather's moods,
By which you cherish all that you have made.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Water,
So useful, lowly, precious, and pure.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
Through whom you brighten up the night.
How beautiful he is, how gay! Full of power and strength.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Earth, our mother,
Who feeds us in her sovereignty and produces
Various fruits and colored flowers and herbs.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through those who grant pardon
For love of you; through those who endure
Sickness and trial.
Happy those who endure in peace,
By you, Most High, they will be crowned.

All praise be yours, my Lord, through Sister Death,
From whose embrace no mortal can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those She finds doing your will!
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give him thanks,
And serve him with great humility.
[St. Francis of Assisi]
You didn't laugh? Or at least cheer? Why not? Brother sun? Sister earth? (NO, not "mother" earth or "father" sun.) Yes: little, dancing... to be laughed at, and admired, but never imitated. In The Everlasting Man GKC examines the issue of nature-worship as part of the first or "B.C" half of his book, and it may be worth concluding today's very tense study with a future-looking quote:
There was a real human hunger in all that element of feature and locality, that procession of deities like enormous pet animals, in that unwearied watching at certain haunted spots, in all the mazy wandering of mythology. Nature may not have the name of Isis; Isis may not be really looking for Osiris. But it is true that Nature is really looking for something; Nature is always looking for the supernatural.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:261-2, emphasis added]


  1. Dr. Thursday,
    How do we answer the atheist claim that we can't really prove that design even exists? I'm having a "conversation" with an atheist and his objection that given enough time and materials the random motion of quarks and other such wild realties would get something that seems designed eventually seems irrefutable, though maybe not sensible.
    Don't worry, of all of Aquinas's proofs of the existence of God, this was the only one that my personal heretic was able to make the slightest hole in.

  2. I think Chesterton's argument for design is a compelling one. It's in Orthodoxy - I think the Ethics of Elfland - and further developed in scattered places throughout his writing.

    Basically, it goes thus:
    We seem ethically to want a "complex" end to things, and nature on its own, if it tends toward any object, must go to a simple object. Equations eventually resolve in the lowest reduction possible; chemicals break down to the least complex combination if left to decay. Even the ancient philosophers saw this in insisting in a primary principle or element from which all matter came and to which all matter went: a general conflagration, or all things becoming water, etc.

    Consider next the general tendency of things to fall into decay. There is, even in nature, a certain combination which prevents such. Analogously, these can be called "artistic" combinations. It seems unlikely that things would regularly combine in such a way as to perpetuate and remain in existence (here speaking about things as simple as molecules, which have not even appetites governing them). Or, at least, it's as likely as not that they would. And when things do combine in a way to become more permanent, they are "fragile" in a sense; whereas, when things do destruct, the change is more final. The law of conservation of energy is no disproof: there's no real way other than dumb luck - without a design - for explaining why all matter and energy and matter doesn't just simply remain in its simplest, most basic forms. The old question "why is there something, and not nothing" is good for a basic proof of the uncaused cause. But for the argument of order, the basic formula is, "why are the things that are what they are, as opposed to what they are made from?"

  3. Thanks Joey - this topic is well worth pursuing, and perhaps we might talk further as time may permit. If you get a journal article, or perhaps a dissertation out of this, I hope to read it!

    OFL, I do not have time to add to Joey G, but I would like to say this. The issue is tied to "order" and also to "chance". However, the problem with "chance" is that very few people know what it is, even mathematically - and would be quite distressed if they actually studied the nature of so-called "random" numbers and such things. They've had a smell at technical matters, but know nothing serious about them.

    Moreover, anyone who has tried to write any serious computer software, or any non-trivial story, understands the nature of "design" - and would argue stridently against it being a matter of chance!

    When you get some time, seek out Sayers' The Mind of the Maker, which explores this; also see Tolkien's very important essay on Fairy Tales.

    I hope to write more on the issue (if I get a chance) on my own blogg. But to keep this reply Chestertonian, I would simply quote GKC:

    A cosmos one day being rebuked by a pessimist replied, "How can you who revile me consent to speak by my machinery? Permit me to reduce you to nothingness and then we will discuss the matter." Moral. You should not look a gift universe in the mouth.

    [Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton 49-50]


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