Thursday, December 04, 2008

Vigilance and Hope and the White Post

Wow! Here we are in Advent of 2008, and I am ashamed to say that we have almost a quarter of Orthodoxy yet to examine! I have resisted asking whether this is worth the effort... but then I remember (let us chant it together) "if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly." [WWWTW CW4:199]

And then - as if in some divinely arranged scheme, or plot twist, my ill-considered sectioning of paragraphs brings a most marvellous selection for us to study today. There is a real matter of concern in our society now - far worse than dragons or global "warming" or some bank failing: it is the failure of human adults to act grown-up. Our esteemed bloggmistress ponders (over on her own blogg) about forgiveness, but even more, why adults sometimes act very childish - no, not in the Chestertonian mode of wonder, or that end-product of conversion commanded by Christ [Mt 18:3] - but like some narsty grade-school bullies: whiney, rude, and unthinking. And the question implied is this: "Why is this happening? What is going wrong?" Today we shall hear GKC's explanation. We shall also hear one of those amazing "verbal fireworks" which has taken on an almost uncanny predictive value in our present highly-biassed modern media, and which you will want to e-mail to your friends. Today's excerpt is most instructive, indeed.

(( when you are ready to act grown-up, click here! ))

You will recall that Chesterton has so far listed two items which he had invented, after long struggle with the maniacs and the dark philosophers - and which (to his amaze) he had found being proclaimed for nearly 2000 years by Christianity:
Twice again, therefore, Christianity had come in with the exact answer that I required. I had said, "The ideal must be fixed," and the Church had answered, "Mine is literally fixed, for it existed before anything else." I said secondly, "It must be artistically combined, like a picture"; and the Church answered, "Mine is quite literally a picture, for I know who painted it."
Last week I had broken off there - yes, in the middle of a paragraph - but he was not finished with his list:
Then I went on to the third thing, which, as it seemed to me, was needed for an Utopia or goal of progress. And of all the three it is infinitely the hardest to express. Perhaps it might be put thus: that we need watchfulness even in Utopia, lest we fall from Utopia as we fell from Eden.
Recall that "Utopia" is the name of a novel by St. Thomas More, lawyer and martyr, which tells about a so-called perfect society. Some say it comes from the Greek prefix eu which means "good"; the dictionary says the prefix is ou which mean "not", so adding the root topia (meaning "place"), we have "No-place". This idea of "watching" or vigilance is quite important (my erstwhile monitoring software for cable TV was called WATCHER, hee hee), and GKC goes on to explain more about it:
We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things. An almost unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old. It is the custom in passing romance and journalism to talk of men suffering under old tyrannies. But, as a fact, men have almost always suffered under new tyrannies; under tyrannies that had been public liberties hardly twenty years before. Thus England went mad with joy over the patriotic monarchy of Elizabeth; and then (almost immediately afterwards) went mad with rage in the trap of the tyranny of Charles the First. So, again, in France the monarchy became intolerable, not just after it had been tolerated, but just after it had been adored. The son of Louis the well-beloved was Louis the guillotined. So in the same way in England in the nineteenth century the Radical manufacturer was entirely trusted as a mere tribune of the people, until suddenly we heard the cry of the Socialist that he was a tyrant eating the people like bread. So again, we have almost up to the last instant trusted the newspapers as organs of public opinion. Just recently some of us have seen (not slowly, but with a start) that they are obviously nothing of the kind. They are, by the nature of the case, the hobbies of a few rich men. We have not any need to rebel against antiquity; we have to rebel against novelty. It is the new rulers, the capitalist or the editor, who really hold up the modern world. There is no fear that a modern king will attempt to override the constitution; it is more likely that he will ignore the constitution and work behind its back; he will take no advantage of his kingly power; it is more likely that he will take advantage of his kingly powerlessness, of the fact that he is free from criticism and publicity. For the king is the most private person of our time. It will not be necessary for any one to fight again against the proposal of a censorship of the press. We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press.
Yes - isn't that amazing? How true! let us see that again, maybe in bold:
We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press.
This might be a paradigm for other illnesses of today: We have unions which have utterly reversed the good once seen by Leo XIII, now more tyrannical than any management. We have governments who are intolerantly forcing "tolerance" in violation of their own constitutions as well as natural law. And we have media which censor most stringently in favour of their own interests, even while they saw through the branches on which they are perched. But we have something more than just a bumper-sticker slogan here - we have a timeless insight, which we need to consider, and which leads to something much more important than the media.

For in that just-quoted paragraph, we have a powerful dictum, which defeats the current media cant about "change" and all its related matters. You may have missed it, so I will put it in bold:
if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.
Yes. The simple error of course is that what we call "time" might simply be just another way of saying "change" - so it is as silly to be "for" change as it is to be "for" time. The issue is not in "change" but in will - that is, what will you do with time? Because as the rock song puts it,
If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice!
[Rush, "Free Will"]
If you choose to have a white post, you will have to choose to maintain that post as white, or you will soon not have that white post any more. More of the inner philosophy of this issue can be found in GKC's great epic, The Ballad of the White Horse, and in another place, to be seen in just a moment. Now we must hurry on, for the great line which we really need to ponder in our Advent preparations:
This startling swiftness with which popular systems turn oppressive is the third fact for which we shall ask our perfect theory of progress to allow. It must always be on the look out for every privilege being abused, for every working right becoming a wrong. 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. The chieftain chosen to be the friend of the people becomes the enemy of the people; the newspaper started to tell the truth now exists to prevent the truth being told. Here, I say, I felt that I was really at last on the side of the revolutionary. And then I caught my breath again: for I remembered that I was once again on the side of the orthodox. Christianity spoke again and said: "I have always maintained that men were naturally backsliders; that human virtue tended of its own nature to rust or to rot; I have always said that human beings as such go wrong, especially happy human beings, especially proud and prosperous human beings. This eternal revolution, this suspicion sustained through centuries, you (being a vague modern) call the doctrine of progress. If you were a philosopher you would call it, as I do, the doctrine of original sin. You may call it the cosmic advance as much as you like; I call it what it is - the Fall."
Yes: the Fall. That is the answer. Quite some time ago, near the very beginning of our text, we heard this:
Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.
You see? We know something is wrong. We know that we will keep on falling - or failing - unless we work very hard, and seek divine assistance continuously. We have been told not to put our "trust in princes nor in any child of man" which is from Psalm 145(146).

This sounds HOPELESS you say? Oh, no, not at all. We have to get to the real issue, the real problem, the real disease - and then we will begin to know what we'll have to do to remedy, cure, repair it. We'll see more next week. But there is another paragraph from a later book which you ought to consider in connection with the previous one, especially because of what I just said - I mean you just said - about "hopelessness":
The Fall is a view of life. It is not only the only enlightening, but the only encouraging view of life. It holds, as against the only real alternative philosophies, those of the Buddhist or the Pessimist or the Promethean, that we have misused a good world, and not merely been entrapped into a bad one. It refers evil back to the wrong use of the will, and thus declares that it can eventually be righted by the right use of the will. Every other creed except that one is some form of surrender to fate. A man who holds this view of life will find it giving light on a thousand things; on which mere evolutionary ethics have not a word to say. For instance, on the colossal contrast between the completeness of man's machines and the continued corruption of his motives; on the fact that no social progress really seems to leave self behind; on the fact that the first and not the last men of any school or revolution are generally the best and purest; as William Penn was better than a Quaker millionaire or Washington better than an American oil magnate; on that proverb that says: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance," which is only what the theologians say of every other virtue, and is itself only a way of stating the truth of original sin; on those extremes of good and evil by which man exceeds all the animals by the measure of heaven and hell; on that sublime sense of loss that is in the very sound of all great poetry, and nowhere more than in the poetry of pagans and sceptics: "We look before and after, and pine for what is not"; which cries against all prigs and Progressives out of the very depths and abysses of the broken heart of man, that happiness is not only a hope, but also in some strange manner a memory; and that we are all kings in exile.
[GKC The Thing CW3:311-2]
Yes, the only enlightening, the only encouraging view.

Now, perhaps you will understand that mystic line in the carol, which will assist you with its power as we prepare for Christmas:
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie:
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the Everlasting Light:
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.


  1. A brilliant post, Dr. Thursday, and very timely, especially, as you well know, for me.

    Thank you.

  2. I'm glad you didn't post a white post. Then we wouldn't be able to read your excellent summary against its white background.

  3. OFL: funny! I thought the same thing at first. Also, the White Pages came to mind (not the phone book, but the George MacDonald ones).


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