Thursday, December 11, 2008

Calling It What It Is...

Our last little exploration of GKC's Orthodoxy ended with this excerpt:
"I call it what it is - the Fall."
It is not at all one of the greater Chestertonian aphorisms, epigrams or "famous quotes" - but this is perhaps the most powerful line in the whole book. It is the reason - or perhaps I ought to say part of the reason - why Christianity is so bitterly hated, not only in ancient Rome, but in modern America. People do not like to be told they are wrong - and especially told that they have always been wrong, and are prone to wrong, and will most likely be wrong over and over again. Especially the "Media" (yes, including bloggers). Especially academics (yes, including guys with doctorates, and even theologians, and even ordained clergy!) Even though that is how we are.

But as GKC points out elsewhere (I quoted his The Thing CW3:311-2 last week) this view of the Fall is the only hopeful view - for it is the view that contains Christmas! Don't you get it? Why did Jesus come? Not to give lectures or write journal articles (or even encyclicals!) Not to just cure and feed and calm storms. He came, very specifically, to do something about our Fallen situation. (See TEM CW2:339: "The primary thing that he was going to do was to
die." Cf. Mt 16:21, Lk 12:49-50) Sure it was going to be difficult, since we had gotten ourselves into quite a mess... Well, this is not the time for me to lecture, even though something as stinging as that requires more to be said. Chesterton himself knew this, and he had more to say.

((to hear more about this, click here))

"The Fall"... powerful, belligerent, fighting words? Yes, they are. GKC does not quote our Lord here, but he is quite in tune with those Divine words which horrify the peaceniks and that bunch who yammer about what they call "God's unconditional love":
Think ye, that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, no; but separation. [Lk 12:51]
These forget there is a War going on, which was why Jesus came in the first place! I bother to point this out because it is one of the aspects of Christmas which few other than Chesterton have seen and written about:
There is something defiant in it also; something that makes the abrupt bells at midnight sound like the great guns of a battle that has just been won. All this indescribable thing that we call the Christmas atmosphere only hangs in the air as something like a lingering fragrance or fading vapour from the exultant explosion of that one hour in the Judean hills nearly two thousand years ago. But the savour is still unmistakeable, and it is something too subtle or too solitary to be covered by our use of the word peace. By the very nature of the story the rejoicings in the cavern were rejoicings in a fortress or an outlaw's den; properly understood it is not unduly flippant to say they were rejoicings in a dug-out. It is not only true that such a subterranean chamber was a hiding-place from enemies; and that the enemies were already scouring the stony plain that lay above it like a sky. It is not only that the very horse-hoofs of Herod might in that sense have passed like thunder over the sunken head of Christ. It is also that there is in that image a true idea of an outpost, of a piercing through the rock and an entrance into an enemy territory. There is in this buried divinity an idea of undermining the world; of shaking the towers and palaces from below; even as Herod the great king felt that earthquake under him and swayed with his swaying palace.
[GKC The Everlasting Man CW2:312-3]
And if that also sounds like Tolkien, yes, those are comparable to Elrond's words about the hobbits:

This is the hour of the Shire-folk, when they arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great.
[JRRT The Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring Book II Chapter 2 "The Council of Elrond" 288]
But let us resume our study:
I have spoken of orthodoxy coming in like a sword; here I confess it came in like a battle-axe. For really (when I came to think of it) Christianity is the only thing left that has any real right to question the power of the well-nurtured or the well-bred. I have listened often enough to Socialists, or even to democrats, saying that the physical conditions of the poor must of necessity make them mentally and morally degraded. I have listened to scientific men (and there are still scientific men not opposed to democracy) saying that if we give the poor healthier conditions vice and wrong will disappear. I have listened to them with a horrible attention, with a hideous fascination. For it was like watching a man energetically sawing from the tree the branch he is sitting on. If these happy democrats could prove their case, they would strike democracy dead. If the poor are thus utterly demoralized, it may or may not be practical to raise them. But it is certainly quite practical to disfranchise them. If the man with a bad bedroom cannot give a good vote, then the first and swiftest deduction is that he shall give no vote. The governing class may not unreasonably say: "It may take us some time to reform his bedroom. But if he is the brute you say, it will take him very little time to ruin our country. Therefore we will take your hint and not give him the chance." It fills me with horrible amusement to observe the way in which the earnest Socialist industriously lays the foundation of all aristocracy, expatiating blandly upon the evident unfitness of the poor to rule. It is like listening to somebody at an evening party apologising for entering without evening dress, and explaining that he had recently been intoxicated, had a personal habit of taking off his clothes in the street, and had, moreover, only just changed from prison uniform. At any moment, one feels, the host might say that really, if it was as bad as that, he need not come in at all. So it is when the ordinary Socialist, with a beaming face, proves that the poor, after their smashing experiences, cannot be really trustworthy. At any moment the rich may say, "Very well, then, we won't trust them," and bang the door in his face. On the basis of Mr. Blatchford's view of heredity and environment, the case for the aristocracy is quite overwhelming. If clean homes and clean air make clean souls, why not give the power (for the present at any rate) to those who undoubtedly have the clean air? If better conditions will make the poor more fit to govern themselves, why should not better conditions already make the rich more fit to govern them? On the ordinary environment argument the matter is fairly manifest. The comfortable class must be merely our vanguard in Utopia.
Now here we find what seems to be a digression, to a commentary on government and social conditions - but of course it is really nothing more than another example of the point GKC is making. Those of us who rejoice in the possession of CW1 have not only Heretics and Orthodoxy but also the letters comprising what is called "the Blatchford Controversy" - in which Robert Blatchford permitted generous length to Chesterton to argue and defend Christianity. But you may be more startled to realize that this odd view about poverty breeding crime (or paying people not to sin) was already on the loose then! GKC knew how dangerous that was, and proceeds to address it in one of the longest paragraphs in our text:
Is there any answer to the proposition that those who have had the best opportunities will probably be our best guides? Is there any answer to the argument that those who have breathed clean air had better decide for those who have breathed foul? As far as I know, there is only one answer, and that answer is Christianity. Only the Christian Church can offer any rational objection to a complete confidence in the rich. For she has maintained from the beginning that the danger was not in man's environment, but in man. Further, she has maintained that if we come to talk of a dangerous environment, the most dangerous environment of all is the commodious environment. I know that the most modern manufacture has been really occupied in trying to produce an abnormally large needle. I know that the most recent biologists have been chiefly anxious to discover a very small camel. But if we diminish the camel to his smallest, or open the eye of the needle to its largest - if, in short, we assume the words of Christ to have meant the very least that they could mean, His words must at the very least mean this - that rich men are not very likely to be morally trustworthy. Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. You will hear everlastingly, in all discussions about newspapers, companies, aristocracies, or party politics, this argument that the rich man cannot be bribed. The fact is, of course, that the rich man is bribed; he has been bribed already. That is why he is a rich man. The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spiritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor. A Christian may consistently say, "I respect that man's rank, although he takes bribes." But a Christian cannot say, as all modern men are saying at lunch and breakfast, "a man of that rank would not take bribes." For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes. It is a part of Christian dogma; it also happens by a curious coincidence that it is a part of obvious human history. When people say that a man "in that position" would be incorruptible, there is no need to bring Christianity into the discussion. Was Lord Bacon a bootblack? Was the Duke of Marlborough a crossing sweeper? In the best Utopia, I must be prepared for the moral fall of any man in any position at any moment; especially for my fall from my position at this moment.
A few notes may help here: The camel/needle allusion is in Mt 19:24, Mk 10:25, Lk 18:25. GKC gives two famous examples of wealthy men who committed serious crimes: Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was a English philosopher and author - bribery and corrupt dealing in chancery led to fines and dismissal from Parliament and court. The Duke of Marlborough was John Churchill (1650-1722)- he was dismissed from office on charges of embezzlement. GKC courteously refrains from mentioning examples of those alive when he wrote, so I shall do the same. But I am sure you can think of a few names. Ahem. Of course it was just a page or two previous that we read this, where GKC quotes a dictum far older even than Jesus:
In this matter I am entirely on the side of the revolutionists. They are really right to be always suspecting human institutions; they are right not to put their trust in princes nor in any child of man.
[CW1:321, quoting Ps 145:2-3(146:3)]
Yes... which takes us right to the next and very interesting paragraph.
Much vague and sentimental journalism has been poured out to the effect that Christianity is akin to democracy, and most of it is scarcely strong or clear enough to refute the fact that the two things have often quarrelled. The real ground upon which Christianity and democracy are one is very much deeper. The one specially and peculiarly un-Christian idea is the idea of Carlyle - the idea that the man should rule who feels that he can rule. Whatever else is Christian, this is heathen. If our faith comments on government at all, its comment must be this - that the man should rule who does not think that he can rule. Carlyle's hero may say, "I will be king"; but the Christian saint must say "Nolo episcopari." If the great paradox of Christianity means anything, it means this - that we must take the crown in our hands, and go hunting in dry places and dark corners of the earth until we find the one man who feels himself unfit to wear it. Carlyle was quite wrong; we have not got to crown the exceptional man who knows he can rule. Rather we must crown the much more exceptional man who knows he can't.
The Latin phrase, "Nolo episcopari" means "I do not wish to be bishop" - this was cried by St. Ambrose (339-397) when he was proclaimed bishop of Milan. Now, if you have thought our excerpt today was all a negative rant, watch carefully and see how GKC gives a truly unique and dramatic dignity - and sense - to democracy! Yes - but read on:
Now, this is one of the two or three vital defences of working democracy. The mere machinery of voting is not democracy, though at present it is not easy to effect any simpler democratic method. But even the machinery of voting is profoundly Christian in this practical sense - that it is an attempt to get at the opinion of those who would be too modest to offer it. It is a mystical adventure; it is specially trusting those who do not trust themselves. That enigma is strictly peculiar to Christendom. There is nothing really humble about the abnegation of the Buddhist; the mild Hindoo is mild, but he is not meek. But there is something psychologically Christian about the idea of seeking for the opinion of the obscure rather than taking the obvious course of accepting the opinion of the prominent. To say that voting is particularly Christian may seem somewhat curious. To say that canvassing is Christian may seem quite crazy. But canvassing is very Christian in its primary idea. It is encouraging the humble; it is saying to the modest man, "Friend, go up higher." [Lk 14:10] Or if there is some slight defect in canvassing, that is in its perfect and rounded piety, it is only because it may possibly neglect to encourage the modesty of the canvasser.

Aristocracy is not an institution: aristocracy is a sin; generally a very venial one. It is merely the drift or slide of men into a sort of natural pomposity and praise of the powerful, which is the most easy and obvious affair in the world.
Those last lines do not seem to fit, but I could not defer them to next week, since they relate more to this context than the next - they do have some sense of an afterthought, as if he felt (having reflected on "the common man") perhaps there was something a bit harsh in his earlier words. (But they do link forward too, as we shall see.) However, I would like to call your attention to another rarely quoted but very interesting observation, well worth our attention, not just in America, but anywhere that people try to govern themselves:
[Democracy] is a mystical adventure; it is specially trusting those who do not trust themselves. That enigma is strictly peculiar to Christendom.
Why does he say that? I could just quote Jefferson and the rest who wrote about the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal" - but I would rather quote Chesterton:
when we say that all pennies are equal, we do not mean that they all look exactly the same. We mean that they are absolutely equal in their one absolute character, in the most important thing about them. It may be put practically by saying that they are coins of a certain value, twelve of which go to a shilling. It may be put symbolically, and even mystically, by saying that they all bear the image of the King. And, though the most mystical, it is also the most practical summary of equality that all men bear the image of the King of Kings.
[GKC A Short History of England CW20]

For religion all men are equal, as all pennies are equal, because the only value in any of them is that they bear the image of the King.
[GKC Charles Dickens CW15:44
And that is where we shall stop. For our Advent meditation today, let us ponder that likeness of all men - including ourselves - to the great King Who came to us little - as a little helpless infant...

1 comment:

  1. I am reminded both of George MacDonald, who's Princess and the Goblin Chesterton loved as a child, which has the Evil Thing burrowing up from below the house via tunnels; and also the current state of politics in my state, IL, where the mighty have taken bribes, even though they are rich.


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