Thursday, March 12, 2009

Fighting Words: Dogma, Ireland, Middle Ages, Evolution, Miracles...

This post is made in memory of dear Ann Stull Petta...

V. Requiem aeternam dona ei Domine.
R. Et lux perpetua luceat ei.
V. Requiescat in pace.
R. Amen.
V. Anima ejus et anime omnium fidelium defunctorum per misericordiam Dei requiescant in pace.
R. Amen.
She, of all people, (like her dear husband, who did so much to promote GKC, especially by supplying me by the last years of the ILN) would urge me to proceed with our study, especially as we deal with such important matters. So let us proceed.

Some of you may be wondering why, every so often, I use the spelling "Roma" instead of Rome. I guess it is a fighting word. Sometimes I cannot grasp why people insist on saying Bay Jing or Beiging or whatever they spell it for "Peking". The Chinese don't say it, they sing it. Sometimes I wish we sang more, or recognized the music in our own language. And they don't spell it at all; they draw it. While I see some complications in using that technique for serious communications, as art it is one of the grandest of human inventions... though I prefer Egyptian hieroglyphs to Chinese pictograms - they look better in stone. (But I do have Chinese brushes and instruction books, and someday I will make the attempt. However I have never wanted to chisel out an obelisk. Hee hee.) Ahem.

Yet these same people won't say "Hellenika" for "Greece", or "John Bernardone" for "St. Francis of Assisi"... and they ask me why I persist in calling that metal "aluminum" and not "aluminium", and why that gas is "helium" rather than "helion" like "neon" and "argon"! Then there's the word "object" in computing, which can apply to "code" which is produced by a compiler (or linker) - but can apply to language which means one is always writing PASCAL "WITH" statements using a kind of ellipsis... but I am sure all this is very boring, even to the techs and the linguists. Anyhow, I am not trying to argue for (or against) any of these things, but just pointing out the richness - and the challenges - of human language. Though I am also trying to egg on a fight about words.

But perhaps you'd prefer a little GKC about this odd kind of battle... here's an interesting bit, as we draw near the end of winter:
One of the elemental jokes of this earth is the fact that (going merely by the eye and its associations) a winter landscape looks warm and a summer landscape looks cool. In winter the earth seems to be comfortably huddled in white furs, which are called snow. In summer she seems to be fanning herself with green fans, which are called foliage. That heavy half-violet white of snow is really one of the warmest colours. That glistening or gleaming green of leaves is really one of the coolest colours. A white snow-bank looks as warm as a white blanket. A green forest looks as cool as a green sea. This is, no doubt, an illusion of my eye. In the curiously exact and philosophic phrase of our fathers, it is all my eye. A full and generous philosophy draws its strength from all the senses; and I can always correct the illusion of my eye merely by putting my nose out of the front door.
For this reason we should remember and treasure the spring which we are now enjoying. We shall never, perhaps, be able to recall it or bring it back. Other springs will come and go and disappear on dancing feet; but they will pass with a perpetual promise of return. The crocuses that tried to grow in my garden will try again, and will probably succeed next time.
But never again, perhaps, shall I look out on a garden in April covered, not with the gold of the crocuses, but with the splendid silver of the snow. As it is, I look on that most glorious of sights: a collision. You may call it, if you like, an overlapping: the spring has begun before the winter has left off. If it comes to that, you can call any collision an overlapping; you can say that the Horsham train overlapped the Brighton express and ten passengers were killed. The essential is that this entanglement of advancing spring with retreating winter has all the crashing qualities of a battle.
[GKC "The April Fool" in Lunacy and Letters]
But that almost poetic sketch (oh for a real illustration to go with it!) does not quite give the sense I wish for. Let's see...
First, democracy is founded on a certain thought or sentiment. If you do not like to call it the equality of men, you can call it the similarity of men. It is man considered in regard to the things which are common. Birth, sex, and death are the three most obvious instances. But birth is generally forgotten, and sex is highly specialised and often highly secretive: hence it is death which springs most easily to men's minds when they consider the common doom of men. But here another complication enters. For though death is the most obvious and universal fact, it is also the least agreeable one. Men will always turn their thoughts from it, unless it is presented in some light of dignity or hope. Highly civilised materialists will naturally think of life as alone interesting. Unfortunately, however, just as what most levels men is death, so what most varies men is life. The towering inequalities in wealth, wisdom, or beauty become all-important to the imagination if there is no cosmic background to dwarf them all. And people will not think about the cosmic background if the background is black. Only the universal can make fraternity possible. Only faith can make the universal endurable. To sum up: men may cling to the idea of "one man one vote" if it is associated with "one man one soul." They certainly will not linger over it if it is only associated with "one man one coffin."
[GKC ILN Jan 13 1912 CW29:223-4]
Wow. I don't remember reading that one at all. (Let's send that to our favourite politician - or political Media Person, it will blow their socks off!)

But it's still not quite what I want. Well, our esteemed bloggmistress asked... Doctor! Will you ever get to the point? Oh excuse me - I am sure waxing eloquent today, and I have a LONG excerpt, but it will be worth it. (Besides, most of this is GKC, not me.) As I was saying, our esteemed bloggmistress asked me some complex question about GKC and "strong verbs and short sentences" (sounds like a rock song, doesn't it?) and I ran into this... the technical grammar term is most likely "ellipsis", but in any case it sure reminds me of that "implied WITH" from object-oriented computer languages:
A very eminent and distinguished critic has done me the honour to criticise, in a private letter, the remarks I made recently in disparagement of the phrase "making good." ... I am, I confess, so degenerate a Latin type of mind that I think there ought to be some logic in grammar. And it seems to me a simple fact that "to make" is a transitive verb, and must have an object or accusative. We can make a plumber good, or make a Dean good, or even make a poor bewildered and overwrought journalist, writing in a weekly illustrated paper, good; but we cannot make good. If it is an allowable idiom, it must be an exception and not a rule; and it must be an exception by some exceptional process, such as that of depending upon words that are "understood." I know that this practice does exist; nor can the most logical Latin wholly condemn it, for it exists even in the logical Latin language. There is a form, which I remember learning laboriously in the Latin grammar as a boy, by which some such word as officium, for instance, could be understood. It is allowable to say in Latin: "It is of a good man to worship the gods," or "It is of a good father to feed his children." Here certainly there is some word, such as "part" or "duty," left to be understood.
But the worst of these words that are understood is that they are not understood. Even in face of the few Latin precedents I rather doubt whether it is wise to follow such precedents, and certainly whether it is wise to create new precedents. But it is particularly undesirable at the present day, at a period in which things are emphatically not understood; a period in which they are, beyond all previous precedent, misunderstood. For men do not now agree, even as much as the Romans did, about the relations of a good man to the gods or the relation of a father to the children. At the best, there is some ambiguity in saying "it is of a good man to go to church." For one man will read it in the form "It is the duty of a good man to go to church." Another may read it, in a cynical spirit, in the form "It is the interest of a good man to go to church." A third will read it in the form "It is the infernal bore inflicted on a good man to go to church." Now, that ambiguity did not so often happen in older and simpler social systems. There is less of that ambiguity in the Latin phrase. But there is nothing but ambiguity in the modern English phrase. There is only blank, unadulterated ambiguity in that English phrase - if you can call it an English phrase. And that is the root of my unrepentant revolt against it.
[GKC ILN Feb 27 1932 special thanks to Frank Petta and my mother]
Well, did any of that get your Irish up? (hee hee!) Are you in a fighting mood yet? All right, one more, the best...
"But you know this is a serious matter," he said, eyeing Turnbull and MacIan, as if they had just been keeping the table in a roar with their frivolities. "I am sure that if I appealed to your higher natures... your higher natures. Every man has a higher nature and a lower nature. Now, let us put the matter very plainly, and without any romantic nonsense about honour or anything of that sort. Is not bloodshed a great sin?"
"No," said MacIan, speaking for the first time.
"Well, really, really!" said the peacemaker.
"Murder is a sin," said the immovable Highlander. "There is no sin of bloodshed."
"Well, we won't quarrel about a word," said the other, pleasantly.
"Why on earth not?" said MacIan, with a sudden asperity. "Why shouldn't we quarrel about a word? What is the good of words if they aren't important enough to quarrel over? Why do we choose one word more than another if there isn't any difference between them? If you called a woman a chimpanzee instead of an angel, wouldn't there be a quarrel about a word? If you're not going to argue about words, what are you going to argue about? Are you going to convey your meaning to me by moving your ears? The Church and the heresies always used to fight about words, because they are the only things worth fighting about. I say that murder is a sin, and bloodshed is not, and that there is as much difference between those words as there is between the word 'yes' and the word 'no'; or rather more difference, for 'yes' and 'no', at least, belong to the same category. Murder is a spiritual incident. Bloodshed is a physical incident. A surgeon commits bloodshed."
[GKC The Ball and the Cross, emphasis added]
And since you probably expect me to mention something from The Phantom Tollbooth, I will. Apparently it was one of the little edits made in going from the book to the movie, because I cannot find it in the book, but when Milo meets King Azaz of Dictionopolis (the Kingdom of Words) Milo explains that he must still serve a sentence of six million years in prison. To which the King replies, "Six million... that's not a sentence, that's a number."

So rather than sentence you to any number of years of waiting, I will wait, laughing patiently, for you to choose to find out more about fighting words...

(( click here to enter the fray! ))

We proceed into the battle with the second of GKC's other trio of topics. We're so "multi-cultural" now - but we don't even know the ONE civilisation responsible for that word! Talk about a fighting word: multus,a,um = many. cultus from colo, colere = to cultivate. Yes, that's LATIN - from ancient Roma. Just as an Indian on a horse is the supreme praise of Columbus, using the word "multi-cultural" is the supreme praise of one single culture: the universal, the Roman one. And even its enemies are still harvesting its fruits. (I suspect their own field is barren, meaning "lifeless" - we heard about that issue last week.)

Even worse, we don't know about the one civilisation that links us back to Rome. Like the "multi-cultural" people in "The Curse of the Golden Cross" in The Incredulity of Father Brown, it is likely that you don't know the truth about the Middle Ages - and this is a sad shame:
"No, of course," said Father Brown. "If it had been Tutankhamen and a set of dried-up Africans preserved, heaven knows why, at the other end of the world; if it had been Babylonia or China; if it had been some race as remote and mysterious as the Man in the Moon, your newspapers would have told you all about it, down to the last discovery of a tooth-brush or a collar-stud. But the men who built your own parish churches, and gave the names to your own towns and trades and the very roads you walk on; it has never occurred to you to know anything about them."
That is a good story, and has a surprise, as good detective mysteries should, but in our next excerpt you will find an even more stunning surprise:
I take in order the next instance offered: the idea that Christianity belongs to the Dark Ages. Here I did not satisfy myself with reading modern generalisations; I read a little history. And in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations. If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery the answer is simple: it didn't. It arose in the Mediterranean civilization in the full summer of the Roman Empire. The world was swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun, when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast. It is perfectly true that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that the ship came up again: repainted and glittering, with the cross still at the top. This is the amazing thing the religion did: it turned a sunken ship into a submarine. The ark lived under the load of waters; after being buried under the debris of dynasties and clans, we arose and remembered Rome. If our faith had been a mere fad of the fading empire, fad would have followed fad in the twilight, and if the civilization ever re-emerged (and many such have never re-emerged) it would have been under some new barbaric flag. But the Christian Church was the last life of the old society and was also the first life of the new. She took the people who were forgetting how to make an arch and she taught them to invent the Gothic arch. In a word, the most absurd thing that could be said of the Church is the thing we have all heard said of it. How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.
I know this comes as a shock to some of you, but you were taught a falsehood about that era, especially when it comes to science. For about 100 years, since the amazing pioneering work of the great thermodynamicist and historian of science Pierre Duhem, who found the scientific work of Buridan and Oresme (the antecedents of Newton and Galileo at the 13th century Sorbonne) - or since Dr. Walsh's collection of details on hospitals and medicine in his The Popes and Science and other works - to which I add the dozens of books of Stanley Jaki, and other like studies - it has been well known that to call them the "Dark Ages" is a gross insult, and quite simply false. The people of those ages were the ones who invented the term "modern". They had science, they had universities, they had hospitals, they had inventions and labor-saving devices... they were the Ages of Light. GKC gives you the tiniest taste - once you've read all the books I mentioned, you will have the truth with academic detail, and know there is far more that we inherit from that era. Just think, there are almost no manuscripts existing older than 1100-1200 years - all the ones we have, of the numerous ancient writers (pagan and other) were copied by hand by monks...

An aside: Read this paragraph again, and if you need more, start with GKC's The Everlasting Man, which will give you the Chestertonian method for handling history, and an encapsulated study of the big picture - especially when you read the chapter called "The Five Deaths of the Faith". Then you can go hunting. Duhem's masterworks are not yet available in English - someday a brilliant French scholar will get busy translating his work. Most of Jaki's books are in print, laden with scholarly detail and meticulously documented, and are available through Real View Books. Start with Science and Creation, chapter 10, and "Medieval Creativity in Science and Technology" in Patterns or Principles.

But, as GKC points out, all this can be known from history, if you actually find out what the history was.

Now, this next paragraph (which I have split for convenience) happens to come at a very suitable moment in the year, considering that the Feast of St. Patrick is next Tuesday...
I added in this second trinity of objections an idle instance taken from those who feel such people as the Irish to be weakened or made stagnant by superstition. I only added it because this is a peculiar case of a statement of fact that turns out to be a statement of falsehood. It is constantly said of the Irish that they are impractical. But if we refrain for a moment from looking at what is said about them and look at what is done about them, we shall see that the Irish are not only practical, but quite painfully successful. The poverty of their country, the minority of their members are simply the conditions under which they were asked to work; but no other group in the British Empire has done so much with such conditions. The Nationalists were the only minority that ever succeeded in twisting the whole British Parliament sharply out of its path. The Irish peasants are the only poor men in these islands who have forced their masters to disgorge. These people, whom we call priest-ridden, are the only Britons who will not be squire-ridden. And when I came to look at the actual Irish character, the case was the same. Irishmen are best at the specially hard professions - the trades of iron, the lawyer, and the soldier. ...
I cannot take the time to begin comments on GKC's dealing with Ireland and the Irish - if you wish two books, please consider Irish Impressions and Christendom in Dublin, both in CW20. Or, for a very brief hint from GKC's fiction:
The prisoner was defended by Mr. Patrick Butler, K.C., who was mistaken for a mere flâneur by those who misunderstood the Irish character - and those who had not been examined by him.
[GKC "The Man in the Passage" in The Wisdom of Father Brown]
I mention this character for a very curious reason. The great mystery writer John Dickson Carr (whose character Dr. Gideon Fell is a wonderful fictional edition of GKC!) wrote two mystery novels where this Irish lawyer Patrick Butler is the main character! (The French flâneur means one who strolls aimlessly, hence an intellectual trifler.)

Now, having completed his responses to the second trio, GKC gives a summary:
... In all these cases, therefore, I came back to the same conclusion: the sceptic was quite right to go by the facts, only he had not looked at the facts. The sceptic is too credulous; he believes in newspapers or even in encyclopaedias. Again the three questions left me with three very antagonistic questions. The average sceptic wanted to know how I explained the namby-pamby note in the Gospel, the connection of the creed with mediaeval darkness and the political impracticability of the Celtic Christians. But I wanted to ask, and to ask with an earnestness amounting to urgency, "What is this incomparable energy which appears first in one walking the earth like a living judgment and this energy which can die with a dying civilization and yet force it to a resurrection from the dead; this energy which last of all can inflame a bankrupt peasantry with so fixed a faith in justice that they get what they ask, while others go empty away; so that the most helpless island of the Empire can actually help itself?"
(Did you catch that allusion to the Magnificat? (Lk 1:53) I thought you would.)

But let us not stop now. GKC asked a question, and proceeds to respond:
There is an answer: it is an answer to say that the energy is truly from outside the world; that it is psychic, or at least one of the results of a real psychical disturbance. The highest gratitude and respect are due to the great human civilizations such as the old Egyptian or the existing Chinese. Nevertheless it is no injustice for them to say that only modern Europe has exhibited incessantly a power of self-renewal recurring often at the shortest intervals and descending to the smallest facts of building or costume. All other societies die finally and with dignity. We die daily. We are always being born again with almost indecent obstetrics. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that there is in historic Christendom a sort of unnatural life: it could be explained as a supernatural life. It could be explained as an awful galvanic life working in what would have been a corpse. For our civilization ought to have died, by all parallels, by all sociological probability, in the Ragnarok of the end of Rome. That is the weird inspiration of our estate: you and I have no business to be here at all. We are all revenants; all living Christians are dead pagans walking about. Just as Europe was about to be gathered in silence to Assyria and Babylon, something entered into its body. And Europe has had a strange life - it is not too much to say that it has had the jumps - ever since.
If you were able to see me when I was reading that last line, you would see the strange reaction, well-known to ACS conference attendees, which I represent here by "hee hee"... I remember an odd bit of Latin I learned from one of Father Jaki's books:
Natura non facit saltum
Which means "Nature does not proceed by leaps." (literally "Nature does not make a jump" - from Linnaeus' Philosophia Botanica.) I won't delve into the biological topic, but it sure seems that "Super-nature" makes "jumps". (Hee hee!) Ahem.

You were wondering about "Ragnarok" - in Scandinavian mythology that is the "Twilight of the Gods", or the final battle leading to the end of the world.

Now, GKC gives us another kind of review, which hints at the technique I mentioned recently of "converging evidence"...
I have dealt at length with such typical triads of doubt in order to convey the main contention - that my own case for Christianity is rational; but it is not simple. It is an accumulation of varied facts, like the attitude of the ordinary agnostic. But the ordinary agnostic has got his facts all wrong. He is a non-believer for a multitude of reasons; but they are untrue reasons. He doubts because the Middle Ages were barbaric, but they weren't; because Darwinism is demonstrated, but it isn't; because miracles do not happen, but they do; because monks were lazy, but they were very industrious; because nuns are unhappy, but they are particularly cheerful; because Christian art was sad and pale, but it was picked out in peculiarly bright colours and gay with gold; because modern science is moving away from the supernatural, but it isn't, it is moving towards the supernatural with the rapidity of a railway train.
Someone will be sure to whine about that bit on Darwinism - so I will apply our usual tool of distinguo and point out that there's a difference between the science of evolution (which studies traits of living things and how they are passed on from parents to offspring) and the philosophy of Darwinism (which is something else, but clearly not science). But then I might as well have said, GKC covered this already, back in chapter 3 "The Suicide of Thought". Then again, a Review is useful, so I will repeat the critical lines - which you ought to keep on hand to stop idiotic whines like that:
Evolution is either an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack upon thought itself. If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism. If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into. It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything. This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about.
Yes, and well worth re-quoting. So let us proceed. We have a much harder topic than "evolution" to confront anyway, in one of the longest paragraphs in the book: the provoking word is miracles...
But among these million facts all flowing one way there is, of course, one question sufficiently solid and separate to be treated briefly, but by itself; I mean the objective occurrence of the supernatural. In another chapter I have indicated the fallacy of the ordinary supposition that the world must be impersonal because it is orderly. A person is just as likely to desire an orderly thing as a disorderly thing. But my own positive conviction that personal creation is more conceivable than material fate, is, I admit, in a sense, undiscussable. I will not call it a faith or an intuition, for those words are mixed up with mere emotion, it is strictly an intellectual conviction; but it is a primary intellectual conviction like the certainty of self or the good of living. Any one who likes, therefore, may call my belief in God merely mystical; the phrase is not worth fighting about. But my belief that miracles have happened in human history is not a mystical belief at all; I believe in them upon human evidences as I do in the discovery of America. Upon this point there is a simple logical fact that only requires to be stated and cleared up. Somehow or other an extraordinary idea has arisen that the disbelievers in miracles consider them coldly and fairly, while believers in miracles accept them only in connection with some dogma. The fact is quite the other way. The believers in miracles accept them (rightly or wrongly) because they have evidence for them. The disbelievers in miracles deny them (rightly or wrongly) because they have a doctrine against them. The open, obvious, democratic thing is to believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a miracle, just as you believe an old apple-woman when she bears testimony to a murder. The plain, popular course is to trust the peasant's word about the ghost exactly as far as you trust the peasant's word about the landlord. Being a peasant he will probably have a great deal of healthy agnosticism about both. Still you could fill the British Museum with evidence uttered by the peasant, and given in favour of the ghost. If it comes to human testimony there is a choking cataract of human testimony in favour of the supernatural. If you reject it, you can only mean one of two things. You reject the peasant's story about the ghost either because the man is a peasant or because the story is a ghost story. That is, you either deny the main principle of democracy, or you affirm the main principle of materialism - the abstract impossibility of miracle. You have a perfect right to do so; but in that case you are the dogmatist. It is we Christians who accept all actual evidence - it is you rationalists who refuse actual evidence being constrained to do so by your creed. But I am not constrained by any creed in the matter, and looking impartially into certain miracles of mediaeval and modern times, I have come to the conclusion that they occurred. All argument against these plain facts is always argument in a circle. If I say, "Mediaeval documents attest certain miracles as much as they attest certain battles," they answer, "But mediaevals were superstitious"; if I want to know in what they were superstitious, the only ultimate answer is that they believed in the miracles. If I say "a peasant saw a ghost," I am told, "But peasants are so credulous." If I ask, "Why credulous?" the only answer is - that they see ghosts. Iceland is impossible because only stupid sailors have seen it; and the sailors are only stupid because they say they have seen Iceland. ...
It is hard to add much to that, it's so comprehensive and so well-argued. Just for completeness, and to hint at the larger topic, I will mention that GKC examines this issue elsewhere - one of the most notable is the story "The Trees of Pride" which is in the fantastic CW14. I will also add that Fr. Jaki has a small book called Miracles and Physics, and another very interesting book called God and the Sun at Fatima which examines the actual reports of the "miracle of the sun" and considers some of the science involved.

As you saw, I broke off this very long paragraph - but there was only one more sentence:
... It is only fair to add that there is another argument that the unbeliever may rationally use against miracles, though he himself generally forgets to use it.
And next week we'll see what it is.

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