Thursday, January 08, 2009

Welcome, Ye New Year!

Yes, it is 2009 now, and for those of us who are interested in such things, 2009 is the product of 41 with the square of seven. As you may expect from a Chestertonian, we shall start the year by making a final posting - that is, today we shall finish off Chapter Seven of Orthodoxy, which means we shall have just two more chapters to study and we shall be finished! Wow.

But instead of talking about numbers I am going to talk about words, at least briefly, before we get into the final (and very bumpy) selection of this new year. Hee hee.

Specifically the word "Ye" and how it is pronounced. In the context of "O come all ye faithful, it rhymes with "we" and is simply an older form of the second person plural "you". But when we see it on fake "old" things like the store that just opened downtown that sells antiques, you know - "Ye Goode Olde Stuff" - it is pronounced "the" because it is the old way of writing the old English letter called "thorn" when your printer doesn't have the requisite characters.

What! Are you gone totally bonkers, Doctor? Maybe a bit too much - ah - mulled wine?

No, there were some older letters that got lost over the centuries. Just as we got this new-fangled "J" and "W" added in, we threw out the "Þ" and "þ" (capital and small Thorn) and the "Ð" and "ð" (capital and small Eth), which stand for the two kinds of "th" we use in English - voiced "th" in "the" and unvoiced "th" in "three". When the old printers didn't have any "Thorn" letters, they used a "Y", and so "Þe" (which is read "The") became "Ye". Oh, yes.

Why fuss about this "ye"? Well, it was bought on by another bit of research I did in order to unravel something we'll see in these concluding paragraphs of this chapter. An authentic Englishman - I mean of course a Chestertonian Englishman - would understand, but perhaps everyone else will think I am being too hard on Englishmen. Which is silly, since GKC is the one being hard on them. It is quite like someone saying how "stiffnecked" the Jews are, and opening the whole can of worms called "antisemitism" - when they are merely quoting God's own words to Moses: "And again the Lord said to Moses: I see that this people is stiffnecked." [Ex 32:9] (Now of course someone will think my using that quote is antisemitic!) No. We need to read carefully, and understand how someone might speak with a bit of sharpness, with some honest intellectual criticism, maybe even pointing out a negative trait or flaw, and yet having true human respect for the person or persons. That is what is happening here.

What is the problem GKC is criticizing? Simply, the idea of aristocracy. You know, the stupid lord-earl-duke stuff they have in England. We have it in America too, though we do not have the those formal ranks. The media force the classes and castes upon us: we all know that movie stars, rock stars and pro athletes (including race-car drivers) are far higher than scientists or teachers or even physicians, though they do not have coats-of-arms or all that, they get the preferential treatments, and the homage of the commoners. Sure: people pay money to have stuff on their shirts or bumper stickers... actually now that I think about it, perhaps they do have coats-of-arms: I've often seen athletic and racer logos on car bumpers. In England you can get taken to court for such things. How odd.

We Americans like to pat ourselves on the back (a very awkward position) because we aren't "stoopit" enough to have all that lord-earl-duke nonsense: we know we're equal, and even our government officers are called silly things like "the guy that sits in front" (the president) or "the old men" (the senate) just so that they don't get uppity. (We just say it in Latin to take the sting out.) Equality was put into the Declaration of Independence, and we threw all that rank stuff out when we threw out all that unjust taxation. Er... oh. Did you just say 1040? Well... at least we threw out the lord-earl-duke thing, and even those old men have to do the 1040 thing. We're equal, once we're born anyway, and we even have amendments about that.

But it was not Jefferson who invented the idea of equality of men. That was made clear some 1700 years before, written in blood on a hill outside Jerusalem when God died. Yes, we really are equal as Chesterton says:
For religion all men are equal, as all pennies are equal, because the only value in any of them is that they bear the image of the King.
[GKC Charles Dickens CW15:44]
He meant English pennies, of course. But there is some satanic itch in fallen Man which makes him want to hold someone higher - usually himself, when possible, but someone else when that can be done conveniently. Sad to say, holding someone higher is often the only exaltation so many people ever get. But it is the whole point of moral theology that it is not the person, but his actions which really are worthy of praise - or of damnation. While in America we do not have social rank embedded in our constitution, we do have it in a popular sense, and so have not yet applied the remedy that the English have. But we are aware of the division - and this division is the last of the points which Chesterton now makes.

(( click here to read on ))

The remedy to the exaltation called aristocracy is to see it as a weakness - to refuse to take it seriously:
Now, it is the peculiar honour of Europe since it has been Christian that while it has had aristocracy it has always at the back of its heart treated aristocracy as a weakness - generally as a weakness that must be allowed for. If any one wishes to appreciate this point, let him go outside Christianity into some other philosophical atmosphere. Let him, for instance, compare the classes of Europe with the castes of India. There aristocracy is far more awful, because it is far more intellectual. It is seriously felt that the scale of classes is a scale of spiritual values; that the baker is better than the butcher in an invisible and sacred sense. But no Christianity, not even the most ignorant or perverse, ever suggested that a baronet was better than a butcher in that sacred sense. No Christianity, however ignorant or extravagant, ever suggested that a duke would not be damned. In pagan society there may have been (I do not know) some such serious division between the free man and the slave. But in Christian society we have always thought the gentleman a sort of joke, though I admit that in some great crusades and councils he earned the right to be called a practical joke. But we in Europe never really and at the root of our souls took aristocracy seriously. It is only an occasional non-European alien (such as Dr. Oscar Levy, the only intelligent Nietzscheite) who can even manage for a moment to take aristocracy seriously. It may be a mere patriotic bias, though I do not think so, but it seems to me that the English aristocracy is not only the type, but is the crown and flower of all actual aristocracies; it has all the oligarchical virtues as well as all the defects. It is casual, it is kind, it is courageous in obvious matters; but it has one great merit that overlaps even these. The great and very obvious merit of the English aristocracy is that nobody could possibly take it seriously.
Well, perhaps some people in America do see the silly media ranks as a weakness. Certainly these wealthy "stars" are to be pitied, and most wise Americans do pity them, and the even more pitiable people who feel compelled to carry their logos on their cars or teeshirts or shoes. But are you clear on what Chesterton is getting at? It is not really that aristocracy is wrong - it's fine if you want Mr. Hot Racer's race-car logo on your own car, or want to bow or curtsey when that fine old Lord Duke Earl swanks into his club. The error would be in thinking that Mr. Hot Racer or the Honourable Lord Duke Earl is somehow better - just because of his exalted status. And that is a very serious issue indeed. It is not just a constitutional issue. It is something human that rubs the wrong way:
In short, I had spelled out slowly, as usual, the need for an equal law in Utopia; and, as usual, I found that Christianity had been there before me. The whole history of my Utopia has the same amusing sadness. I was always rushing out of my architectural study with plans for a new turret only to find it sitting up there in the sunlight, shining, and a thousand years old. For me, in the ancient and partly in the modern sense, God answered the prayer, "Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings." Without vanity, I really think there was a moment when I could have invented the marriage vow (as an institution) out of my own head; but I discovered, with a sigh, that it had been invented already. But, since it would be too long a business to show how, fact by fact and inch by inch, my own conception of Utopia was only answered in the New Jerusalem, I will take this one case of the matter of marriage as indicating the converging drift, I may say the converging crash of all the rest.
We come to the point which brought up my introductory talk of "ye" (pronounced "the"): the prayer that GKC quotes. Unless you are an Anglican, you will have no idea what that is. It is from what they call the "communion service" and appears in the Second Prayer Book of Edward the Sixth:
Preuent us, O Lord, in al our doinges, with thy most gracious fauoure, and further us with thy continual helpe, that in all our works begon, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorifye thy holy name, and finallye by thy mercie obtayne euerlasting lyfe: through Jesus Christ our Lorde. Amen.
Now you see why the fusty old "ye" business came up. Of course the "U" versus "V" problem goes back to ancient Roma, so we cannot fault old Ed #6 for that. But I ought not let you suffer such wretched spelyng:
Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings, with thy most gracious favor, and further us with thy continual help, that in all our works began, continued, and ended in thee, we may glorify thy holy name, and finally by thy mercy obtain everlasting life: through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Rev. Percival Jackson's The Prayer Book Explained states that this prayer came from an ancient sacramentary by Pope Gregory the Great, but I do not have either book to check further. However, I do have Chesterton's books, and he had something further to say, which I think may clear up the somewhat awkward use of "prevent":
It will be noted that many quotations from Chaucer in these pages are recast in a manner that may well distress Chaucerians; though it is done with the hope of increasing the number of Chaucerians in the world. I can only say that I am acutely sensitive to all that can be said against what I am doing. To say that I have modernized Chaucer has a very ugly sound, and might stand for a very ugly thing. The first difficulty about disturbing any ancient language, that is good of its kind, is that the man who turns it into new language may turn it into pretty thoroughly bad language; in the sense of something worse than slang. There is also this paradoxical but practical fact: that the very examples in which the meaning of a word has changed are the examples in which we know what it means. If we substitute a very modern word, we may find that everybody uses it and nobody knows what it means. It marked the use of an old phrase, of which the meaning has changed, when the Prayer-Book said, "Prevent us, O Lord, in all our doings." But nobody does imagine that the vicar, who reads it out in the parish church, means that he wants to be tripped up with boobytraps and butter-slides in everything he attempts. The dead word, like the dead language, does in a sense remain sacred. 'Prevent' is a Latin word and still makes sense in Latin. But there is always the peril that turning it into modern English might mean turning it into more modern American; and ghastly possibilities open before us, of some future reformer altering "prevent us" to "put us wise." Or, to take another example, it is now extremely archaic English to talk about the Holy Ghost. But it is perfectly intelligible English, although it is archaic English. It stands for a certain idea which was strong when the language was made, and it stands exactly where it did.
[GKC Chaucer CW18:315]
Oooh, Latin! "Prevent" comes from prae+venire = to come before - thus the archaic sense is "to anticipate". But GKC gives the American as well, and so the point is clear.

There is a little more which needs to be clarified, and GKC proceeds to do so. Here, however, we shall find an even more narsty issue: the idea of duels and of bets - but these are minor matters to a far larger one. In fact, it is something about which I hope to write more elsewhere, though it is not easy to do so without getting into a very hot topic: the idea of how freedom requires the ability to bind one's self. But for now, see how GKC argues, and remember that this is the logical and correct requirement for the much-lauded "equality" which we must have as human beings:
When the ordinary opponents of Socialism talk about impossibilities and alterations in human nature they always miss an important distinction. In modern ideal conceptions of society there are some desires that are possibly not attainable: but there are some desires that are not desirable. That all men should live in equally beautiful houses is a dream that may or may not be attained. But that all men should live in the same beautiful house is not a dream at all; it is a nightmare. That a man should love all old women is an ideal that may not be attainable. But that a man should regard all old women exactly as he regards his mother is not only an unattainable ideal, but an ideal which ought not to be attained. I do not know if the reader agrees with me in these examples; but I will add the example which has always affected me most. I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself. Complete anarchy would not merely make it impossible to have any discipline or fidelity; it would also make it impossible to have any fun. To take an obvious instance, it would not be worth while to bet if a bet were not binding. The dissolution of all contracts would not only ruin morality but spoil sport. Now betting and such sports are only the stunted and twisted shapes of the original instinct of man for adventure and romance, of which much has been said in these pages. And the perils, rewards, punishments, and fulfilments of an adventure must be real, or the adventure is only a shifting and heartless nightmare. If I bet I must be made to pay, or there is no poetry in betting. If I challenge I must be made to fight, or there is no poetry in challenging. If I vow to be faithful I must be cursed when I am unfaithful, or there is no fun in vowing. You could not even make a fairy tale from the experiences of a man who, when he was swallowed by a whale, might find himself at the top of the Eiffel Tower, or when he was turned into a frog might begin to behave like a flamingo. For the purpose even of the wildest romance results must be real; results must be irrevocable. Christian marriage is the great example of a real and irrevocable result; and that is why it is the chief subject and centre of all our romantic writing. And this is my last instance of the things that I should ask, and ask imperatively, of any social paradise; I should ask to be kept to my bargain, to have my oaths and engagements taken seriously; I should ask Utopia to avenge my honour on myself.
I have heard dozens of rock songs whining about rebellion and revolution and "working for The Man" and stuff like that. They are so very dull, so very abject, so very subservient.... yet these same rockers turn around and swear undying loyalty to their lover? What? Why that's - yes - that's SO Chestertonian! Hee hee! Let's read this again, and set them against (or really beside) the discussion of aristocracy, but also against our rocker-rebellious modern world:
I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself. Complete anarchy would not merely make it impossible to have any discipline or fidelity; it would also make it impossible to have any fun.
Yes: "the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself" Why isn't there a heavy-metal drum-pounding song which centers on this! There ought to be. It would be far more rebellious than the insipid tuneless drivel which were just sops thrown to the Soviets - or to Hollywood. For this rebellion is the true human kind: the rebellion against the Fall. It is the makings of all fairy-tales (remember that chapter? Oh yes!) and also of all adventure (nasty inconvenient things, as Bilbo said - but that was before he had one!) We shall see more of this good rebellion in the next chapter - far more. So much more it will shock you.
It may sound as if GKC is urging us to some sort of Utopia - but it is actually the key to something far better, and far more real:
All my modern Utopian friends look at each other rather doubtfully, for their ultimate hope is the dissolution of all special ties. But again I seem to hear, like a kind of echo, an answer from beyond the world. "You will have real obligations, and therefore real adventures when you get to my Utopia. But the hardest obligation and the steepest adventure is to get there."
And thus concludes the seventh chapter, "The Eternal Revolution". They are mystical words, perhaps the most mystical of all in the book: one of the strange insights in to what awaits us in eternity. People somehow think heaven is boring, and will be rather a lot of sitting around playing harps and staring at God... but GKC's view is vastly more exciting: "my Utopia" will have "real adventures" with "real obligations". If God is "in act" being simply "pure act" (as the Scholastics say) and "at work" [see John 5:17] and not withstanding that He rested "on the Seventh Day" [Gen 2:2] why would it be the case that He has to be busy while we goof off? Oh, no. GKC implies that Eternity will be far busier - and far more interesting. But our "hardest obligation and steepest adventure" is to get there. Let us work together to make it happen. It sure sounds worth it.

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