Sunday, August 23, 2009

The moderator - er - instigator - intrudes...

As I am a bit in the role of moderator - or perhaps, to be fair, the instigator of this discussion I ought not get into it very deeply. But I will not intrude my OWN words much - my only role is to let GKC play at least a little larger of a part in the conversation, though I may have to help by way of some introductory grunts. For example:

The question of "What am I?" is not often understood - in fact is rarely understood, if ever by the individual, perhaps because few of us understand very much about philosophy, or science or any real study of what humanity is. People say they want to "discover themselves" - but this is an error. To put it simply, our being does not depend on our knowing about our being - but even more, my own desire, or my own guess, or my own interpretation of "me" (of what I "am") is almost never what I really am. This truth is sure to be a let-down to some, but then that's the nature of things... we're very good at misleading ourselves about our selves! Sure, we have a definite opinion about what we are, but that does not make us what we are. Yes, you can find this in vast detail in Aquinas and other philosophers, but it is easier to take a little-known book by GKC and find the simple answer there. In GKC's "green-pencil" annotations to .... er, hm. Let me start over, since this is not really easy to quote directly.

In the little collection of Holbrook Jackson's aphorisms called Platitudes In the Making you will find this:
No opinion matters finally: except your own.
[Holbrook Jackson, Platitudes in the Making, 15]
But GKC took a green pencil and scribbled in his own copy this slight revision:
"No opinion matters finally: except your own."
said the man who thought he was a rabbit.
[GKC/HJ Platitudes Undone 15]

Now, on the issue of GKC as a generalist.... Here you have given me an opportunity for a perfect demonstration of the scholastic distinguo.

Watch and see:

I distinguish "generalist" in two senses: (1) as a writer (2) in the unrestricted sense.

In sense (1) concedo - I concede the point. He wrote about just about every possible topic, wisely and insightfully, for "I would undertake to pick up any topic at random, from pork to pyrotechnics, and show that it illustrates the truth of the only true philosophy" [GKC The Thing CW3:189].

In sense (2) nego - I deny the point. Rather, he had such an intense "presence of mind" that he was utterly dependent on his wife for many of the common ordinaries of life. For example:
[Mrs. Mills, a friend] was struck by the placidity with which Frances accepted her husband's oddities in daily life. Both in London and when they stayed with one another in the country, a regular feature of each morning was a blood-curdling yell from upstairs, unutterably startling the first time you heard it. "It sounded," said Mrs. Mills, "like a werewolf." Frances would say, without a smile or the slightest sign of surprise, "Oh, that's Gilbert, he wants his tie tied." One morning he was very late. Frances went up to look and came down saying (again with no faint trace of surprise or amusement), "Gilbert dropped one of his garters [he was wearing knickerbockers and golf stockings], he went down on the floor to look for it and found a book there, so he began to read it."
[Ward, Return To Chesterton 75]
Ahem! Very funny. Now, on to the most important matter... the question, "what is man?":

Oh my, Brian, and Davy, and BlogNerd, you are on the verge of great discoveries: this is one of the most important questions facing humanity: WHAT IS MAN? (and its correlate, WHAT IS WOMAN?) Or, to be a little more general: What is the meaning of our existence?

But then, you might note, that this was asked of God in the exquisite Psalm 8:
O Lord, our Lord, how admirable is thy name in the whole earth! For thy magnificence is elevated above the heavens. Out of the mouth of infants and of sucklings thou hast perfected praise, because of thy enemies, that thou mayst destroy the enemy and the avenger. For I will behold thy heavens, the works of thy fingers: the moon and the stars which thou hast founded. What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou hast made him a little less than the angels, thou hast crowned him with glory and honour: And hast set him over the works of thy hands. Thou hast subjected all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen: moreover, the beasts also of the fields. The birds of the air, and the fishes of the sea, that pass through the paths of the sea. O Lord, our Lord, how admirable is thy name in the whole earth![emphasis added]
It is only by our working together that we shall begin to learn - as GKC did:
To the question, "What are you?" I could only answer, "God knows."
[GKC Orthodoxy CW1:363]
If this seems like a riddle, we are in a well-known path:
Every great literature has always been allegorical - allegorical of some view of the whole universe. The 'Iliad' is only great because all life is a battle, the 'Odyssey' because all life is a journey, the Book of Job because all life is a riddle.
[GKC The Defendant 47]
Now,I shall go off to instigate another riddle in some other corner of the e-cosmos...


  1. About the man who thought he was a rabbit--good one, Dr. Thursday and GKC. I agree. We should not say "the only opinion that matters is mine."

    Now consider this: "'Nobody's opinion matters but my parents', said the man whose parents told him he was a rabbit." (Or, "nobody's opinions matter but my neighbors', my friends', my priest's, my favorite author's...or anyone's who isn't me." If "the man" is not lucky, any of these people, under the influence of the right hallucinogen, might tell him he's a rabbit. (That would never happen? Consider this: "'No one's opinion matters but my neighbors',' said the man whose neighbors told him he was a born Klansman.")

    Or they might tell him, 'you're not a rabbit; stop eating so many carrots"--not considering that our poor friend might have a vitamin deficiency!

    Just so, in the past, many people said "you're not a man; stop studying so hard!"--not considering that a woman, or some women, most women or maybe even all women might have the same need for study or learning as men.

    (As an example, though at the risk of annoying Davy, I'll mention Vera Brittain again. In the excellent PBS dramatization of her autobiography, her relatives tell her that Oxford isn't for her; it's only inhabited by men and horrid, "mannish" women. But when she speaks with a lecturer who knows Oxford and knows her scholarship, he confirms her own instinct, opinion, and, I say metaphorically, vocation--Oxford is the right rabbit hole for her.

    Another wrinkle, though--Brittain's adviser tells her to choose a particular women's college at Oxford, because its entrance exam is easier than the one for another women's college. She disagrees, deciding to challenge herself--and she gets in, with a scholarship. Sometimes, when we decide that a trusted adviser is wrong and we are right, the unexpected happens...we are actually right!

    With the rabbit anecdote and with the Brittain example in mind, and with great respect, I have to quibble with the statement that "my own almost never who I truly am." This seems not completely incorrect, but too strongly worded, if I may say so. I'd agree that our our guess is often wrong, and that our guess must be formed and tested in dialogue with others. I'd agree very, very strongly with that proposition. Navel-gazing is not the royal road to wisdom (sorry for the mixed metaphor). I'd just add that you shouldn't be so distrustful of your own instincts and guesses that the dialogue becomes a monologue, with you on the listening end. (I say "you" in jest, Dr. Thursday. I could be wrong, but something tells me that there's no danger that you are going to be too passive in being led or defined by others. There are many who might, though. Think of that man whose neighbors are in the Klan...)

    On Chesterton as a man who specialized in letters to the exclusion of certain practicalities, I will happily say concedo. (I've got to tell my wife the thing about falling on the floor and staying there to read a book; that sounds exactly like something I would do!) The endearing thought of absent-minded Chesterton actually makes him even more a departure from male gender stereotypes of the always-focused professional or conquering hero, and this strengthens my feeling that the role he philosophically assigned to women is one he admired and even perhaps wistfully desired--though I still think it's a romantic misrepresentation of the roles to which women were historically consigned.

    Now, about what, for me, is your most important point--

    "It is only by our working together that we shall begin to learn"--

    concedo, concedo, concedo!

    (Thanks very much for joining in. I understand your compunctions, as moderator and as someone scale-tippingly steeped in Chestertonian knowledge, about plunging in more actively--but please know that, as far as I'm concerned, you won't squelch the discussion if you do step in, and you will be very welcome.)

  2. Hmm. Dr. T--very interesting.

    Though I think when we think of GKC as a generalist or at least when I say he is a generalist, I mean in scholarship and the arts. He is no thorough expert in one given area, he dabbles in this, dabbles in that as it interests him. This is not to say that the penetrating nature of his sideways glances at this and at that are not profound and sophisticated. Only that he is a generalist and, yes, an amateur of life.

    Are you limiting the description of women as generalists and amateurs that you are limiting that to tying his tie and getting him out of the door on time.

    I believe he was also talking about the female life of the mind (not only of domesticity) and her encounter with the world of arts and letters and ideas, was he not?

  3. I think that's a good point BG. He may be saying something like woman is a generalist. She may not seem to be one, but she is by nature. This I think is one of the really interesting things that woman bring to research. I'll take chess for instance, woman play chess very differently from men. It's as if they see the game in a whole different way. This is just one example, but in other things also this is true. I don't think Chesterton is saying that a generalists has to do everything, it's more that they could do anything. This is even supported statistically (although weak) in that woman and men tend to have the same IQ averages, but woman are more bunched up in the middle of the bell curve, where as there are way more men at each extreme. Take for instance, Joan d'Arc, St. Lucia, St. Catherine, and St. Mary. It's hard to find more disparate woman. However, even though some were more "specialized" I think Chesterton would argue that they were generalists. They had the ability to do anything, and God called them each to have one thing as their primary purpose, but they may have been able to perform that duty all the better because of their generalist abilities. Sorry, if this is poorly thought out/rambling.


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