Thursday, September 17, 2009

WWWTW I.2 Wanted: An Unpractical Man

Today is the feast of St. Robert Bellarmine, and I would love to digress into the usual discussion of Galileo, what some seem to think is the ultimate "proof" of the stupidity of the Catholic Church when it comes to Science. Oh... except that the Church was right when it came to the science: Galileo's "proof" from the tides had a math error, and he neglected to hear from Kepler about some new data which demonstrated that the planets moved in ellipses, not circles. (We call them Kepler's laws, not Galileo's!) And yet, Galileo was right about the theology, because he quoted St. Augustine about the right use of sacred scripture:
Augustine’s appreciation of quantitative relationships had, of course, no immediate consequences for the emergence of scientific method. His main concern went far beyond the acquisition of numerical data in particular and learning in general. What interested him most was the quest for happiness, and this implied far more than marshaling bookish details, a point well to remember in this age threatened by the tyranny of sheer learning and by the voracious storing of information. Possibly, he underestimated the role of man’s mastery of nature by knowledge in the process of securing happiness. He took the view that the knowledge of natural sciences, astronomy in particular, could not help one much in understanding the biblical message, as it concerned not man’s natural skill but his supernatural destiny. On the other hand, he wanted no part of a study of the Bible which purposely ignored the well-established results of scientific studies. He put the matter bluntly: “It is often the case that a non-Christian happens to know something with absolute certainty and through experimental evidence about the earth, sky, and other elements of this world, about the motion, rotation, and even about the size and distances of stars, about certain defects [eclipses] of the sun and moon, about the cycles of years and epochs, about the nature of animals, fruits, stones, and the like. It is, therefore, very deplorable and harmful, and to be avoided at any cost that he should hear a Christian to give, so to speak, a ‘Christian account’ of these topics in such a way that he could hardly hold his laughter on seeing, as the saying goes, the error rise sky-high.” Such a performance, Augustine remarked, would undercut the credibility of the Christian message by creating in the minds of infidels the impression that the Bible was wrong on points “which can be verified experimentally, or to be established by unquestionable proofs.”
[Jaki, Science and Creation 182]
But I am very far behind and must get on with today's lesson, so I will just add one more thing. Whenever someone says "Galileo" and moans, say "Pasteur" or "Volta" or "Ampere" or "Piazzi" or "Galvani" or "Fresnel" or "Agnesi" or "Hermite" or "St. Albert the Great" ... and LAUGH! (For more about these Catholic scientists, see here.)

Very well. Yes, GKC has things to say about Galileo, such as that famous retort, "I should not be surprised if your vague notions of the Church as the persecutor of science was a generalization from Galileo." from The Ball and the Cross. Indeed, GKC on GG would be fun, but it must be deferred - another study for another time.

Now that we've settled that, let us get into something even more argumentative - Chesterton versus technology. I think you will be quite surprised, as we proceed, that ...

Ahem. Well, I was going to get into a discussion here, but I find my time is running short, so I will have to merely present today's text and give you a few notes - and perhaps we can talk about it more later. I do think you will find that GKC gives us plenty to argue about, once we've exhausted the Galileo topic. However, I should point out that there is one of the Great Chesterton Quotes here... watch for it.

There is a popular philosophical joke intended to typify the endless and useless arguments of philosophers; I mean the joke about which came first, the chicken or the egg? I am not sure that properly understood, it is so futile an inquiry after all. I am not concerned here to enter on those deep metaphysical and theological differences of which the chicken and egg debate is a frivolous, but a very felicitous, type. The evolutionary materialists are appropriately enough represented in the vision of all things coming from an egg, a dim and monstrous oval germ that had laid itself by accident. That other supernatural school of thought (to which I personally adhere) would be not unworthily typified in the fancy that this round world of ours is but an egg brooded upon by a sacred unbegotten bird; the mystic dove of the prophets. But it is to much humbler functions that I here call the awful power of such a distinction. Whether or no the living bird is at the beginning of our mental chain, it is absolutely necessary that it should be at the end of our mental chain. The bird is the thing to be aimed at - not with a gun, but a life-bestowing wand. What is essential to our right thinking is this: that the egg and the bird must not be thought of as equal cosmic occurrences recurring alternatively forever. They must not become a mere egg and bird pattern, like the egg and dart pattern. One is a means and the other an end; they are in different mental worlds. Leaving the complications of the human breakfast-table out of account, in an elemental sense, the egg only exists to produce the chicken. But the chicken does not exist only in order to produce another egg. He may also exist to amuse himself, to praise God, and even to suggest ideas to a French dramatist. Being a conscious life, he is, or may be, valuable in himself. Now our modern politics are full of a noisy forgetfulness; forgetfulness that the production of this happy and conscious fife is after all the aim of all complexities and compromises. We talk of nothing but useful men and working institutions; that is, we only think of the chickens as things that will lay more eggs. Instead of seeking to breed our ideal bird, the eagle of Zeus or the Swan of Avon, or whatever we happen to want, we talk entirely in terms of the process and the embryo. The process itself, divorced from its divine object, becomes doubtful and even morbid; poison enters the embryo of everything; and our politics are rotten eggs.

Idealism is only considering everything in its practical essence. Idealism only means that we should consider a poker in reference to poking before we discuss its suitability for wife-beating; that we should ask if an egg is good enough for practical poultry-rearing before we decide that the egg is bad enough for practical politics. But I know that this primary pursuit of the theory (which is but pursuit of the aim) exposes one to the cheap charge of fiddling while Rome is burning. A school, of which Lord Rosebery is representative, has endeavored to substitute for the moral or social ideals which have hitherto been the motive of politics a general coherency or completeness in the social system which has gained the nick-name of "efficiency." I am not very certain of the secret doctrine of this sect in the matter. But, as far as I can make out, "efficiency" means that we ought to discover everything about a machine except what it is for. 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.

It is then necessary to drop one's daily agnosticism and attempt rerum cognoscere causas. If your aeroplane has a slight indisposition, a handy man may mend it. But, if it is seriously ill, it is all the more likely that some absent-minded old professor with wild white hair will have to be dragged out of a college or laboratory to analyze the evil. The more complicated the smash, the whiter-haired and more absent-minded will be the theorist who is needed to deal with it; and in some extreme cases, no one but the man (probably insane) who invented your flying-ship could possibly say what was the matter with it.

"Efficiency," of course, is futile for the same reason that strong men, will-power and the superman are futile. That is, it is futile because it only deals with actions after they have been performed. It has no philosophy for incidents before they happen; therefore it has no power of choice. An act can only be successful or unsuccessful when it is over; if it is to begin, it must be, in the abstract, right or wrong. There is no such thing as backing a winner; for he cannot be a winner when he is backed. There is no such thing as fighting on the winning side; one fights to find out which is the winning side. If any operation has occurred, that operation was efficient. If a man is murdered, the murder was efficient. A tropical sun is as efficient in making people lazy as a Lancashire foreman bully in making them energetic. Maeterlinck is as efficient in filling a man with strange spiritual tremors as Messrs. Crosse and Blackwell are in filling a man with jam. But it all depends on what you want to be filled with. Lord Rosebery, being a modern skeptic, probably prefers the spiritual tremors. I, being an orthodox Christian, prefer the jam. But both are efficient when they have been effected; and inefficient until they are effected. A man who thinks much about success must be the drowsiest sentimentalist; for he must be always looking back. If he only likes victory he must always come late for the battle. For the man of action there is nothing but idealism.

This definite ideal is a far more urgent and practical matter in our existing English trouble than any immediate plans or proposals. For the present chaos is due to a sort of general oblivion of all that men were originally aiming at. No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself. The whole is an extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis-aller. Now this sort of pliability does not merely prevent any heroic consistency; it also prevents any really practical compromise. One can only find the middle distance between two points if the two points will stand still. We may make an arrangement between two litigants who cannot both get what they want; but not if they will not even tell us what they want. The keeper of a restaurant would much prefer that each customer should give his order smartly, though it were for stewed ibis or boiled elephant, rather than that each customer should sit holding his head in his hands, plunged in arithmetical calculations about how much food there can be on the premises. Most of us have suffered from a certain sort of ladies who, by their perverse unselfishness, give more trouble than the selfish; who almost clamor for the unpopular dish and scramble for the worst seat. Most of us have known parties or expeditions full of this seething fuss of self-effacement. From much meaner motives than those of such admirable women, our practical politicians keep things in the same confusion through the same doubt about their real demands. There is nothing that so much prevents a settlement as a tangle of small surrenders. We are bewildered on every side by politicians who are in favor of secular education, but think it hopeless to work for it; who desire total prohibition, but are certain they should not demand it; who regret compulsory education, but resignedly continue it; or who want peasant proprietorship and therefore vote for something else. It is this dazed and floundering opportunism that gets in the way of everything. If our statesmen were visionaries something practical might be done. If we ask for something in the abstract we might get something in the concrete. As it is, it is not only impossible to get what one wants, but it is impossible to get any part of it, because nobody can mark it out plainly like a map. That clear and even hard quality that there was in the old bargaining has wholly vanished. We forget that the word "compromise" contains, among other things, the rigid and ringing word "promise." Moderation is not vague; it is as definite as perfection. The middle point is as fixed as the extreme point.

If I am made to walk the plank by a pirate, it is vain for me to offer, as a common-sense compromise, to walk along the plank for a reasonable distance. It is exactly about the reasonable distance that the pirate and I differ. There is an exquisite mathematical split second at which the plank tips up. My common-sense ends just before that instant; the pirate's common-sense begins just beyond it. But the point itself is as hard as any geometrical diagram; as abstract as any theological dogma.
[GKC WWWTW CW4:42-6, emphasis added]

A couple of notes to help out:
pis-aller is French for "to go worst", that is, the only possible course, the last resort.
rerum cognoscere causas is Latin for "to know the causes of things". It is from Virgil's Georgics, Book II, which says "felix qui potuit cognoscere causas rerum". Chesterton gives a translation in a companion text to ours, and it is worth hearing it in context:
Many must have quoted the stately tag from Virgil which says, "Happy were he who could know the causes of things," without remembering in what context it comes. Many have probably quoted it because the others have quoted it. Many, if left in ignorance to guess whence it comes, would probably guess wrong. Everybody knows that Virgil, like Homer, ventured to describe boldly enough the most secret councils of the gods. Everybody knows that Virgil, like Dante, took his hero into Tartarus and the labyrinth of the last and lowest foundations of the universe. Every one knows that he dealt with the fall of Troy and the rise of Rome, with the laws of an empire fitted to rule all the children of men, with the ideals that should stand like stars before men committed to that awful stewardship. Yet it is in none of these connections, in none of these passages, that he makes the curious remark about human happiness consisting in a knowledge of causes. He says it, I fancy, in a pleasantly didactic poem about the rules for keeping bees. Anyhow, it is part of a series of elegant essays on country pursuits, in one sense, indeed, trivial, but in another sense almost technical. It is in the midst of these quiet and yet busy things that the great poet suddenly breaks out into the great passage, about the happy man whom neither kings nor mobs can cow; who, having beheld the root and reason of all things, can even hear under his feet, unshaken, the roar of the river of hell.
[GKC The Outline of Sanity CW5:136]

P.S. It is a bit mean for me to tantalise you, but this concept of Purpose (writ large as Father Jaki would say) comes up in my book on Subsidiarity, where I quote this very section of WWWTW, both about solving one's airplane problems, and about studying hydraulics. I also mention the Virgil quote about knowning causes. Yes, I am preparing the text for submission to a publisher, and hope to have some news eventually. I can be very unpractical some days, since as a computer scientist I have to deal with the causes of things - I've read Boethius, I use theory to to aid my practice! Are you shocked to hear that a tech reads classics? Sure - I have a tough time with that term "Impassable Divide" for I am trying to "rebuild ... this bridge between science and human nature" [GKC The Defendant 75] Or as I like to say, I sit squarely on the fence, and it can be uncomfortable, but I get advantages - I can use papal encyclicals to help me write software; I can use software to help me write poems and essays on "lit'ry" topics. Ah! I don't really like the term "Renaissance Man" (except in the context of John 3:3) we Chestertonians ought to be rather a Medieval Man: "I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done." [GKC Heretics CW1:46] Where I used to work, we once were so unpractical that we built machinery to transport and play some 200,000 TV commercials inspired by that very line from Chesterton - and some stuff from Leo XIII, Pius XI, and John Paul II.

Now, what was that about Galileo and the Church?


  1. As always I can't tell if GKC truly dislikes Maeterlinck or if he is just overly-fond of jam. Dr. T? Any thoughts on that? Or anyone? I imagine that Maeterlinck criticism of the Church and organized religion bothered him deeply but other aspects of his work would have intrigued him, I think. Funny enough in light of his comment about Virgil--Maeterlinck wrote a screenplay called The Life of a Bee. And I'd think his Romanticism (French though it be) would also have moved him to some degree.

    My take is he is being flippant about someone who was en vogue amongst the academic class--does he mention Maeterlinck elsewhere?

    And though I'm late to this post, it is perfect that he mentions pirates and their planks since today is National Talk Like a Pirate Day! ;)

    Thanks for this.

  2. WRT M. I cannot say, but if you like I can send you the concordance - he mentions M. about 100 times in AMBER. See especially ILN Aug 4 1906, Sept 18 1909, Jan 15 1910; TCM and the essay in Varied Types.

  3. Yes, that would be great! I have a sort of crock pot going for Chesterton and Romanticism--and that would be helpful (you actually did a search for me that I requested through Gilbert a while back about Chesterton and Wallace Stevens and romanticism, for which I thank you). I'm thick--what does WRT M mean?

  4. And also btw: I found this small essay

    Do you have any idea where that was originally published? And it makes clear that he feels about Maeterlinck as I thought he would, pretty near to what he felt about Blake, I'd imagine.

    So this statement is very funny--it does indeed make fun of himself for being overly fond of jam, rather than insult Maeterlinck. LOL

  5. Sorry, I slipped back into my world for a moment. "WRT" means "with respect to".

    Wow, that web side is HORRID. No wonder people cannot ever find anything on the INTERNET! And no citations, no source, nothing! Whew. But you can always tell you're on the ACS site since WE are Scholastics, and so unlike some publications WE give ALL citations - at least we try to do so. We know it is important in case you are curious or interested.

    Actually I find it strange that there is no citation. In reality, *they* ought to be nagged about adding something. But since I happen to practise Subsidiarity, and you have appealed to me for assistance, I will tell you that it appears to be the essay from Varied Types (page 207 et seq) - but I did not verify whether the full contents agree. I might add that GKC's prefatory note to VT states "These papers, with certain alterations and additions, are reprinted with the kind permission of the Editors of The Daily News and The Speaker" - since these have not yet been collected I cannot tell you anything more about its origin.

    You mention jam. I like jam too. In my original post, I was going to allude to a succinct and powerful item in the famous CW14, which I feel you will enjoy, since I can offer you nothing further about M...

    "May I have jam?"
    "Certainly," she said, raising her eyebrows wearily.
    He only smiled ravenously, but she felt sure that if any earthly chair had been high enough he would have kicked his legs. There was another silence.
    "Some fellows like butter and jam," said the religious enthusiast of the morning's conversation. "I think that's beastly."
    "The main benefit of existence," said Marjory bitterly, "seems to be eating."
    "Hardly the main benefit surely," said Petersen calmly, "though I agree with you that it is a neglected branch of the poetry of daily life. The song of birds, the sight of stars, the scent of flowers, all these weak. admit are a divine revelation, why not the taste of jam?"
    [from "The Man With Two Legs" fragment, CW14:786-7]

    I hope this helps.
    --Dr T.

    P.S. I rather wish you would write up something on M. and GKC's take on him and his work - if not for your own blogg, then for here. Someone else might be curious.

  6. Since you were so helpful I certainly will be more prompt in writing it up than I otherwise would be though I won't promise an exact date at the moment. I sort of THOUGHT he should have at least a few good words to say about Maeterlinck and confessio: not so much because I like M (though I do) but because my vanity was stoked to think I was correct in assuming GKC SHOULD. ;)

    Cheers, and thanks again.


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