Sunday, August 23, 2009

Why I want to see Edinburgh - and something more

I saw something about GKC and Edinburgh recently - was it here ? I cannot recall. Anyway, I remembered that he has a fantastic description of the place, which has made me mark that city as a stopping-point for me if I ever get to the eastern side of the Atlantic. Here's just a little taste:
it is sometimes difficult for a man to shake off the suggestion that each road is a bridge over the other roads, as if he were really rising by continual stages higher and higher through the air. He fancies he is on some open scaffolding of streets, scaling the sky. He almost imagines that, if he lifted a paving-stone, he might look down through the opening, and see the moon. This weird sense of the city as a sort of starry ladder has so often come upon me when climbing the Edinburgh ways in cloudy weather that I have been tempted to wonder whether any of the old men of the town were thinking of the experience when they chose the strange and splendid motto of the Scotch capital. Never, certainly, did a great city have a heraldic motto which was so atmospherically accurate. It might have been invented by a poet - I might almost say by a landscape painter. The motto of Edinburgh, as you may still see it, I think, carved over the old Castle gate is, "Sic Itur ad Astra": "This Way to the Stars."
[GKC "The Way to the Stars" in Lunacy and Letters 76]
If you know Latin, you may recognize that this is from the ninth book of Virgil's Aeneid... it is a very powerful and tantalizing phrase. GKC uses it in a very important essay (how fast I forget them after I've read them!) which I think you ought to read for yourself. Here's the critical bit:
The materialism which idolatrised scientific machinery was followed by a natural, and on the whole healthy, reaction which cursed and condemned it. But, indeed, the mere denunciation of engineering or chemistry was as materialistic as the mere adoration of them. What matters is the motive and not the machine. The attempt to make science a sort of substitute for religion was simply ludicrous. A man said: "I can see no sense in anything; I hate the human race; I wish I was dead; but I am glad they have discovered the telephone: now I can ring up in the middle of the night and say something I don't value to somebody I don't like." This man was unintelligent. But it was even more unintelligent to blame the telephone because we had nothing to say in it that was worth saying. Similarly the hopes of physical research were silly hopes if they really meant that such a matter as aviation could make life worth living. Being stupid and wicked above the clouds is the same as being stupid and wicked under them: and there are clouds as well as stars in the very brain of man wherever he may go. If it is not the habit that makes the monk, still less is it the wings that make the angel. Yet the same innocent joy that is felt by a child in seeing "the wheels go round" may well be felt by an angel in seeing the worlds go round.

It has been touchingly reported that the little brother of the lost airman talks perpetually of the great aerial feat; and no one who knows anything of children will even need to be told so. It is this clear and stainless pleasure in science, as in a toy as big as the world, that we need rather than any displeasure at it. We can all remember it in the time when we cheered a passing railway-train or first stared at crystals through a microscope. We ought still to be able to cheer the railway-train. We still know that the diamond is beautiful, if the diamond-broker isn't. It was said that the Devil need not have all the good tunes: nor need he even have all the bad smells. Chemistry was as holy as hagiology when we were in the nursery. And in this sense, very different from the current one, there is such a thing as Christian Science. But the disinfectant of science is con-science, or conscience. When the moral air has been purified, as it has been by this all-annihilating storm, we recover the natural gladness in the magic made by man. And in no symbol is this more apparent than in the great symbol of the battle in the air, of which this one life and death will be the central and the fruitful legend.

We have done right and the heavens have not fallen: rather, we have re-inherited the heavens of our fathers. We have passed the midnight of materialism when the heavens were only vacant. The sky is what it was of old: a window of all the world and the entrance to immortality. Sic itur ad astra.
[GKC ILN June 26 1915 CW30:234-5]
I said in my title that there would be something more, and here it is.

Since Nancy herself voted for "A" in my poll, I take that as approval for my getting into some hot water - that is, for our study of What's Wrong With the World (hereinafter WWWTW) to commence on the coming Thursdays, as God may permit me to proceed.

So! If you do not have a copy of WWWTW, you might wish to obtain CW4 from the ACS, which also contains the important books called Eugenics and Other Evils and The Superstition of Divorce and the pamphlets called Divorce Versus Democracy and Social Reform Versus Birth Control. As I proceed I shall use the pagination in CW4, but I hope to cover its roughly 44 "chapters" by doing one each week, so it ought to be easy for you to keep up regardless of what edition you have. I am well aware that there are some very controversial parts to the text - some of them I may take up, others I may leave for you to discuss, in the comment-box, or in your own bloggs. But I will try to give at least a little bit larger of the view of this book, trying (as we did in our study of Orthodoxy) to see more of it as Chesterton did.

One final point I'd like to make. If you are so inclined to offer your own comments and produce your own discussions, on WWWTW or on any other Chestertonian matter, please remember that you are free to set up your own blogg... it was GKC himself who seemed to presage this marvel when he wrote:
This paper exists to insist on the rights of man; on possessions that are of much more political importance than the principle of one man one vote. I am in favour of one man one house, one man one field; nay I have even advanced the paradox of one man one wife. But I am almost tempted to add the more ideal fancy of one man one magazine ... to say that every citizen ought to have a weekly paper of this sort to splash about in ... this kind of scrap book to keep him quiet.
[GKC in GK's Weekly April 4, 1925, quoted in Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton 497]
After all:
I believe in getting into hot water. I think it keeps you clean.
[GKC ILN March 10 1906 CW27:142]


  1. Dr. T--do you know CP Snow? I'm again struck by how some of the issues he covers about the division between the Humanities and the Sciences are presaged in GKC.

  2. I know the name but only as an occasional reference in Fr. Jaki's writing. Such studies are far out of my usual traversals, but I can give you citations if you wish... or, to reduce complexities, when I get them together I will post it on the Duhem Society blogg. Perhaps you might post your own considerations if you have time - then I could give a link to your work, as others in the DS may be curious. Thanks very much!

  3. It's hard to start your own blog!! Also, a blog isn't really the best "forum" for open discussion, a forum would be best, but I don't think you can host a forum for free anywhere.

  4. BN: I posted a handful about Snow here. If you want more details from SLJ's work, please send me an e-mail.

    DM: I didn't think it was terribly hard myself, but it does take some commitment. I've had mine since 2005, though I did have a lengthy gap when they meddled with the machinery. It's up to you. We're glad you're here - it's just that you might want to instigate something someday. You can always send e-mail to me or Nancy.

    But do continue with your discussion - reading the counterpoint of the trio on "what's worth doing" is exciting, and very Chestertonian!

  5. Dr. Thursday,

    Thanks for the suggestion. I actually have a blog, with only one post. And I actually have one reply! And you know who that one replier was?? Why you of course! So, thanks for that. The problem is that I rarely have original thoughts to post. Maybe as I learn more I'll have more to say of my own.

  6. Thank you, Dr. T. Don't have time to look closely yet, but I certainly will! Tomorrow is another day!

  7. DM3 - oops! I knew that!

    BN - I sure know about time, where does it go?

  8. Jaki's read of CP Snow is interesting--obviously he is extremely critical, and with good reason. Though, I think the crisis between the two cultures is a real one--and I think GKC had is finger on that burgeoning crisis that came to head at the time of Snow's lecture.

    Thanks for taking the time to dredge those up and post them. I'm interested in taking a further look at Jaki if and when time permits.

    Thanks much again!


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