Thursday, January 15, 2009

Statuary and Arithmetic: Words and Bridges

Now that we are two weeks into 2009, we can feel quite confident in setting forth into a new adventure: the eighth and penultimate (second-last) of the chapters of GKC's Orthodoxy, entitled "The Romance of Orthodoxy".

We have already had a kind of premonition - or a flash-forward - to this chapter some time ago, and it may be well worth your time to review:
...if some small mistake were made in doctrine, huge blunders might be made in human happiness. A sentence phrased wrong about the nature of symbolism would have broken all the best statues in Europe. A slip in the definitions might stop all the dances; might wither all the Christmas trees or break all the Easter eggs. Doctrines had to be defined within strict limits, even in order that man might enjoy general human liberties. The Church had to be careful, if only that the world might be careless.
This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic.
[CW1:305, emphasis added]
Yes, indeed. After reading an excerpt like this you would expect that even very serious tech types would find something curious in Chesterton - and in Christianity. (I don't count, since I am rarely serious. Hee hee!) Yes, every time that line of the gospel comes up about "the smallest part of a letter" [this is one translation of Mt 5:18] I think our Lord is talking about computer software, for in computing, even more than in law or in theology (to say nothing of philosophy) are the smallest parts of letters important. The INTERNET and all the various forms of software stand strongly against all the sick modern philosophers, lawyers and theologians who worship the "feels right" way, proclaiming the "everything is relative" dogma from their little thrones. Yes, even for them, our Lord's dictum holds: unless you type your password correctly, regarding even the "smallest part" of a letter - which we call a "bit" - you shall by no means log onto the system to check your e-mail, or to post a comment. Yes, indeed. You've heard me quote this before
No sceptics work sceptically; no fatalists work fatalistically; all without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume what it is not possible to believe. No materialist who thinks his mind was made up for him, by mud and blood and heredity, has any hesitation in making up his mind. No sceptic who believes that truth is subjective has any hesitation about treating it as objective.
[GKC St. Thomas Aquinas CW2:543]
Even the most twisted relativists, even evolutionists, even philosophers, become strict absolutists and stern literalists when they sit down at a computer! Or when they flip a light switch. Thank God.

There is another phrase in that above quote which is fun to discuss: "the accuracy of arithmetic". Now, ever since the 1930s it has been known just how "accurate" arithmetic can be. If you have never heard the name "Kurt Gödel" that's a shame; you need to explore his important work, which has forever closed the door on all "mathematical proofs" supposedly demonstrating how the universe is. Why? In short, because math cannot even prove itself consistent - which is a horror to certain atheistic views of physics and philosophy. There's significant information about Gödel in various books by Fr. Jaki (see especially the title essay in A Late Awakening, and the dramatic meeting in 1976 recounted in A Mind's Matter) but unfortunately I cannot go further here and now. I mention Gödel partly to keep his name out in view, but also because of his importance to any study of this "accuracy of arithmetic" which GKC couples with the "grace of statuary"... This mystical "corpus callosum", which Chesterton reveals time and time again in his writing, culminates in his neurological comments on the joining of the two hemispheres (he calls them "lobes") of the human brain in The Everlasting Man [CW2:380] - GKC's book on Jesus Christ, the true Bridge Builder. Of course you may not have read that book yet, as you may have not yet read Gray's Anatomy to learn what the "corpus callosum" is. It's the part of the brain that joins the two hemispheres, and permits coordination of the eyes to give us binocular vision. You see?

You may ask: "are you wandering, Doctor?" Well, I often do, at the beginnings of these things, until we get into the meat of the matter. But I feel it is important to set up a certain view for you - a larger view to see more, not so much with your physical eyes, but with your mental ones - so that you can see statuary and arithmetic together - and in equilibrium. (Cardinal Newman would delight in this sort of thing; it is such hints of links from him to GKC which suggest an interesting project for some future scholar to tackle.)

But while it may be accurate in some sense to make statements like this - "Chesterton's Orthodoxy contains 63791 total words using 6665 unique words in 227 paragraphs" - it is not very amusing. And it may even provoke a quarrel, since it is unclear what is meant by "unique" words (do capitalised or hyphenated words count?) - or imprecise because the edition is not stated, nor whether any professional care or rigor has been applied regarding what version (or versions) were used in the analysis. Another view, coming from the "statuary" side of things, might suggest that such silly word-counts are a waste of energy, when one ought to be contemplating the greater mysteries which GKC is presenting. Or another might suggest one should be taking action to implement GKC's ideas in one's life, family, neighborhood, or world... But then we remember what GKC told us:
There has arisen in our time a most singular fancy: the fancy that when things go very wrong we need a practical man. It would be far truer to say, that when things go very wrong we need an unpractical man. Certainly, at least, we need a theorist. A practical man means a man accustomed to mere daily practice, to the way things commonly work. When things will not work, you must have the thinker, the man who has some doctrine about why they work at all. It is wrong to fiddle while Rome is burning; but it is quite right to study the theory of hydraulics while Rome is burning.
[GKC What's Wrong With the World CW4:43]
It is to stimulate you, O reader, to think such things that I begin in such a manner. There's more. There's always more. This is true in any serious technical work of engineering or science, in any serious effort of art or music, in any serious form of writing... and if I lean rather predominantly towards a scientific or technical style in my hints and suggestions, well, you should expect that from an actual scientist. If you wanted merely "lit'ry" comments, you can find them elsewhere, though I do try to sprinkle my tech stuff with savoury word flavours!

Besides, we are going to hear something rather sharp about science today, and about words - so you ought to be prepared.

((click here when you are prepared))

Yes, be prepared, for this first paragraph is stunning:
It is customary to complain of the bustle and strenuousness of our epoch. But in truth the chief mark of our epoch is a profound laziness and fatigue; and the fact is that the real laziness is the cause of the apparent bustle. Take one quite external case; the streets are noisy with taxicabs and motorcars; but this is not due to human activity but to human repose. There would be less bustle if there were more activity, if people were simply walking about. Our world would be more silent if it were more strenuous. And this which is true of the apparent physical bustle is true also of the apparent bustle of the intellect. Most of the machinery of modern language is labour-saving machinery; and it saves mental labour very much more than it ought. Scientific phrases are used like scientific wheels and piston-rods to make swifter and smoother yet the path of the comfortable. Long words go rattling by us like long railway trains. We know they are carrying thousands who are too tired or too indolent to walk and think for themselves. It is a good exercise to try for once in a way to express any opinion one holds in words of one syllable. If you say "The social utility of the indeterminate sentence is recognized by all criminologists as a part of our sociological evolution towards a more humane and scientific view of punishment," you can go on talking like that for hours with hardly a movement of the gray matter inside your skull. But if you begin "I wish Jones to go to gaol and Brown to say when Jones shall come out," you will discover, with a thrill of horror, that you are obliged to think. The long words are not the hard words, it is the short words that are hard. There is much more metaphysical subtlety in the word "damn" than in the word "degeneration."
Just as the distorted relativism held by so many philosophers, theologians, and lawyers does not deny the true law, theology, and philosophy - but it does forbid simple humdrum tools like pens and paper, cars, electricity, or the INTERNET - well, so today's paragraph which opens Chapter Eight attacks not science and engineering, but literature and the "media". You may not see this at first, because you may have heard some one say that GKC didn't like "technology" or "science" - which is silly. He was not hypocritical: you think he made his own parchment and ink? Not he! He sent his manuscripts off to a printer, and was glad. You think he walked or rode a horse to go places? No, he rode on trains and praised them in many places. He "often thanked God for the telephone" [What's Wrong With the World CW4:112] and he even talked on the BBC radio! (He was very popular, too.)

It is time for a Scholastic distinguo (I distinguish): Chesterton is not opposing science; he is opposing scientism. In Jaki's Chesterton a Seer of Science - a short four-chapter study of GKC's attitude to science which ought to be read and studied by every Chestertonian and every scientist - you will find a chapter called "Antagonist of Scientism". That is what is going on here. Scientism is the funny hat that some in the media and academics like to put on, thinking it's a lab coat which endows them with the mighty power of doctorates: they suddenly begin to use long words, though they have no idea what those words really mean. GKC was swift to battle the pretentious attitudes of these "social" scientists - and the attitude of scientism - that is, thinking science can answer anything - which is almost as dangerous as its Luddite opposite (thinking that science can answer nothing at all).

I need to be precise here, as GKC is, lest you mistake the meanings. There is nothing wrong with using long words (I defer a discussion of GKC's famous 38-letter word to a better time and place) or precision and delicacy in the use of technical or field-specific terms. Rather than confound my reader with some abstruse term from my own discipline, I will simply quote the great parallel GKC sets up between the grandest of technical disciplines (that is, medicine, specifically anatomy) and theology:
...dogmas are not dull. Even what are called the fine doctrinal distinctions are not dull. They are like the finest operations of surgery; separating nerve from nerve, but giving life. It is easy enough to flatten out everything for miles round with dynamite, if our only object is to give death. But just as the physiologist is dealing with living tissues, so the theologian is dealing with living ideas; and if he draws a line between them it is naturally a very fine line.
[GKC The Thing CW3:303]
GKC here is following Cardinal Newman. It is just as stupid - yes, I will say it again, with a blow on the table - stupid to oppose science as it is to oppose religion. The media anchor-being or lit'ry scholar or atheistic physicist who oppose philosophy and theology are almost as stupid as the little Catholic college who has web pages and electric lighting but teach no technical courses. (The Catholic college is of course worse, since it's their business to be better - and to be "catholic". Newman would weep.) Ahem. This is serious business, and needs to be dealt with, but let us get back to our text.

That remarkable paragraph is just the beginning of our chapter, and although it might be easy for some to pretend that GKC is kicking at science, he is really attacking those who refuse to use words correctly:
But these long comfortable words that save modern people the toil of reasoning have one particular aspect in which they are especially ruinous and confusing. This difficulty occurs when the same long word is used in different connections to mean quite different things. Thus, to take a well-known instance, the word "idealist" has one meaning as a piece of philosophy and quite another as a piece of moral rhetoric. In the same way the scientific materialists have had just reason to complain of people mixing up "materialist" as a term of cosmology with "materialist" as a moral taunt. So, to take a cheaper instance, the man who hates "progressives" in London always calls himself a "progressive" in South Africa.
Indeed! As you see, he is not quarrelling about "finite automata" or "igneous intrusives" or "Cepheid variables" or "protein catabolism" - such lovely tech terms - but about philosophical and political terms! It's not the right use of tech terms, but the wrong use, whether those words be "tech" for literature or for science, which GKC is complaining against.

And now, hold on to your lab coats. The word GKC is going to bring up is very loaded. It is the dreaded "L" word, which has a different sense today, and yet what GKC says still applies:
A confusion quite as unmeaning as this has arisen in connection with the word "liberal" as applied to religion and as applied to politics and society. It is often suggested that all Liberals ought to be freethinkers, because they ought to love everything that is free. You might just as well say that all idealists ought to be High Churchmen, because they ought to love everything that is high. You might as well say that Low Churchmen ought to like Low Mass, or that Broad Churchmen ought to like broad jokes. The thing is a mere accident of words. In actual modern Europe a freethinker does not mean a man who thinks for himself. It means a man who, having thought for himself, has come to one particular class of conclusions, the material origin of phenomena, the impossibility of miracles, the improbability of personal immortality and so on. And none of these ideas are particularly liberal. Nay, indeed almost all these ideas are definitely illiberal, as it is the purpose of this chapter to show.
Yes, it should come as no surprise that there is a good sense and a bad sense to "liberal" (just as there is to "conservative"!) It is just like nuclear physics, like metallurgy, like any other skill and effort of Man. The same power which enables the atomic bomb enables your home's smoke detectors - and an almost unbelieveable amount of the work of modern biology has been made possible by our use of radioisotopes. The same metal which makes the gun which kills also makes the plow which sustains life. But we might go even further back: fire is our great friend, and our deadly enemy. The Scholastics had a saying: Abusus non tollit usum: Abuse does not take away use. (As GKC tells us, it is right to study hydraulics when Rome is burning.)

You may feel quite stimulated by now, ready to get active, to assist in any number of worthy but difficult human undertakings. But there is one undertaking which is our current aim: that is, to understand GKC's work, and thereby to understand better our world and our place in it. Again, you may here ask, how on earth can this book be really about Christianity? And the answer to that is simple. We hardly ever think of a tool until we are faced with a problem that that tool can assist us in solving. One does not use (or even think of) the car's windshield wipers on a sunny day! Christianity has the nature of a tool: a solution to a problem. When we consider the mess of things around us - the problems of the world - we look for a solution. Before we conclude today's study, you will find (to your great surprise) that Christianity is in fact an engineering solution! But there are other proposed solutions which won't work:
In the few following pages I propose to point out as rapidly as possible that on every single one of the matters most strongly insisted on by liberalisers of theology their effect upon social practice would be definitely illiberal. Almost every contemporary proposal to bring freedom into the church is simply a proposal to bring tyranny into the world. For freeing the church now does not even mean freeing it in all directions. It means freeing that peculiar set of dogmas loosely called scientific, dogmas of monism, of pantheism, or of Arianism, or of necessity. And every one of these (and we will take them one by one) can be shown to be the natural ally of oppression. In fact, it is a remarkable circumstance (indeed not so very remarkable when one comes to think of it) that most things are the allies of oppression. There is only one thing that can never go past a certain point in its alliance with oppression - and that is orthodoxy. I may, it is true, twist orthodoxy so as partly to justify a tyrant. But I can easily make up a German philosophy to justify him entirely.
A tyrant is really just a supreme example of a lack of liberty. People often say they want to be free. But they hardly ever wish to talk about what that means. GKC has a very elegant statement of what it means:
What exactly is liberty? First and foremost, surely, it is the power of a thing to be itself.
[GKC, "The Yellow Bird", The Poet and the Lunatics]
This is eminently scientific, being almost pure ontology, and a horror to so many who despise the technical disciplines. But it is therefore necessary to use certain terms, to work carefully, and not to distort things. That is the point. It is just as important to the realms of "statuary" as it is to the realms of "arithmetic". Yes: that means there must be something which links these two great and all-so-severed domains, much as in The Phantom Tollbooth Rhyme and Reason restored the Kingdom of Wisdom.

It requires a bridge.

You have heard me quote GKC about that bridge before, and I shall no doubt quote it again. But it really is the clue to GKC's work, which we need to learn: the clue to restoring the unity of all the disciplines of knowledge, to governing our actions, to make actual progress in human action in assisting human life:
Science itself is only the exaggeration and specialization of this thirst for useless fact, which is the mark of the youth of man. But science has become strangely separated from the mere news and scandal of flowers and birds; men have ceased to see that a pterodactyl was as fresh and natural as a flower, that a flower is as monstrous as a pterodactyl. The rebuilding of this bridge between science and human nature is one of the greatest needs of mankind. We have all to show that before we go on to any visions or creations we can be contented with a planet of miracles.
[GKC, The Defendant 74-75, emphasis added]
I must therefore quote the corollary, the answering verse, which I alluded to near the beginning of today's notes, for the key question is who is to build this bridge? Chesterton tells us that the answer is found in the Everlasting Man:
The more deeply we think of the matter the more we shall conclude that, if there be indeed a God, his creation could hardly have reached any other culmination than this granting of a real romance to the world. Otherwise the two sides of the human mind could never have touched at all; and the brain of man would have remained cloven and double; one lobe of it dreaming impossible dreams and the other repeating invariable calculations. The picture-makers would have remained forever painting the portrait of nobody. The sages would have remained forever adding up numerals that came to nothing. It was that abyss that nothing but an incarnation could cover; a divine embodiment of our dreams; and he stands above that chasm whose name is more than priest and older even than Christendom; Pontifex Maximus, the mightiest maker of a bridge.
[GKC, The Everlasting Man CW1:380]
So now you see the real romance of orthodoxy: Orthodoxy really is about Christianity, for it is about Jesus Christ, the Bridge Builder: the Everlasting Man "in Whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge". [Col 2:3]


  1. Metaphysical subtlety of short words: I'll say! I have to think long and hard about this metaphysical question:

    "Do the natures of things exist in the things or outside them?"

    (I'm not asking you for the answer, by the way.)

    No words longer than 2 syllables, but very important if you want to prove that there is a God, or that humans did not exist from forever and forever ago.

  2. I think your critique of small Catholic colleges that offer no technichal courses is un-Chestertonian. Do you not rember the Orthodoxy quote that says "Let the German become more slow and reverent, that the Frenchman may be more swift and experimental."? (I apologize if I left out two cans, or something like that) Given the present-day abundance of technichal education, a good thing (I'm at a large public university where most people learn techniques: running a business, running a farm, playing the piano, healing a plant, mixing a chemichal, so I ought to kow), is there not a place for emphasis on the other good: education in the non-technichal things in which these small Catholic colleges specialize? If they cannot provide the technichal aspect, is this not balanced by the high technique of the other places of education? If these small colleges are hostile to technical studies (as Manicheans are hostile to matter), that is one thing, but I do not think this is so. The ideal, of course, would be to have both (University of Dallas does, I think), but this is not possible for everyone or every college.


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