Thursday, May 06, 2010

A Prime Reason to read GKC

I have been rather busy recently - how I wish we all lived together in the Inn at the End of the World, and could meet over beers and dinner, and chat. Once one has God in any picture, there's always lots to talk about, which is why it is clear to me that we shall be delightfully busy in heaven. (Boredom, of course, is reserved for the other place.)

Let's see... besides becoming Godfather again, I was busy with completing a draft of my Saga, and editing another part of it, and proceeding into another part. (No I cannot tell you when it will be published, but at least you have something to look forward to.) I finished reading an amazing book about St. Albert the Great - we really someone to do a study of him compared with GKC - there are several points worth looking into. For example, Dale likes to call GKC a "complete" thinker; Albert the Swabian was called "The Universal Doctor" even during his own lifetime! Curious. I started another on Pope Leo XIII, and was shocked out of my chair - but I won't tell you about that just now. (Another thing to look forward to!) It's quite an old book, written during his lifetime - recall any of the volumes which came out in the mid 1980s about Pope John Paul II, then simply subtract a century. Did you realize that Leo XIII was elected in 1878 and John Paul II in 1978 - and both reigned for more than 25 years? Amazing. There's plenty more uncanny parallels, too - the book frequently mentions the "recent war" and the "tyrant" that devastated Europe - no, not Hitler, it means Napoleon! And the difficulties arising from the recent Vatican Council (the FIRST, not the second) and the scandals and politics which beset the Pope... well, just check out any encyclopedia about Leo XIII.

Why does this matter? Leo was elected when GKC was 4, and died when GKC was shy of 30 - and we have all heard hints of how Leo's famous encyclical from 1891, Rerum Novarum, plays a part in GKC's thought. (That is another topic awaiting a scholarly study.) Moreover, those who ignore history are probably going to flunk geography too.
Which reminds me to get back to my point, what else I have been doing. I am nearly finished another book, a fantastic little item called The Theology of Prayer by Father Hardon, which also had a shocking link to GKC. In considering the concept of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament, Father Hardon mentions how we should approach our Jesus as the Lord - not only as Lord of History (cf. GKC's The Everlasting Man) but also as Lord of Geography! Now, where on earth (pun) does GKC hint at that? I shall show you...
As to Transubstantiation, it is less easy to talk currently about that; but I would gently suggest that, to most ordinary outsiders with any common sense, there would be a considerable practical difference between Jehovah pervading the universe and Jesus Christ coming into the room.
[GKC The Thing CW3:180]
Yes... the Lord of Geography - as St. John wrote,
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled, of the word of life. For the life was manifested: and we have seen and do bear witness and declare unto you the life eternal, which was with the Father and hath appeared to us.
[1 John 1:1-2]
One can only imagine how it could have happened... Simon Peter murmuring, "John, give the Master a hand getting into the boat." John puts out his arm, and Jesus smiles as He jumps in...

Oh, and then there was another book, which I was sipping every month or two just before I went to bed, about the ancient cemetery beneath St. Peter's, and the explorations there. Almost too amazing to hint at today - it certainly beckons to enter into the Saga somehow.... but let us go on.

Finally, I was busy with something else and suddenly noticed how my computer was just sitting there doing nothing - and I shook my head. "I'll put a stop to that right now!" I chuckled, and a little while later I was watching it be very very busy finding prime numbers. What a joy! A few days later, poking through dozens of gigabytes of primes, I laughed when I thought about how easy it is for some to become hyper-paranoid about such things. When I was doing my doctorate, we had a little quip we used to say:
"Spies like big prime numbers."
That's because primes can be used in certain forms of encryption, that is, of concealing szekretz! Oh boy, where's my overcoat and dark glasses! There were so many primes - what fun! Curious things like 319494913 and 5000000029 - so I had to revise the epigram:
"Spies like LOTS OF prime numbers."
And to help stimulate your own delight I decided to poke around and see if GKC ever mentioned prime numbers - after all we know he liked algebra and math and science and engineering...

Yeah. Right, Doc - clearly you need some coffee. You're telling us GKC was a math dude? You've been sitting at that machine watching it spew primes and they've addled your brain.

Not yet. Hee hee! Well, if you're going to challenge me - I shan't expect you to get the same results from searching the net, even though these days there is not much lacking from the various far-flung e-files of Chesterton! OK, let's see now... hmm. He mentions binomial theory, Euclid, isosceles triangles... gosh and they call this guy a journalist? I thought I spotted a prime somewhere in here... Oh yes, here's one - 62017. Sure, that's prime. Now why on earth is GKC talking about that? Were you able to find it with your gurgle or whatever it's called? Hee hee! No? All right, here you go:
A fine American epic might be written about the battle in the big hotel, with its multitudinous cells for its swarming bees. It might describe the exciting battle for the elevators; the war of the nameless and numberless guests, known only by their numbers. It might describe the gallant sally of 55783, who succeeded in seizing I and working the thirty-second lift; the heroic conduct of 62017, in bringing up an armful of yams and sweet potatoes by the fire-escape; of the deathless deeds of 65991, whose name, or rather number, will resound for ever in history.
[GKC Sidelights on New London and Newer York CW21:571]
There's a parallel passage here, but none of these are prime:
I remember, in the course of the controversy, that I suggested that we should have to fall back on some alternative to names, such as numbers, in describing the ringing repartees leading up to the duel in which the subtle and crafty 7991 died upon the sword of the too-impetuous 3893; or the vows breathed by the passionate lips of 771 in the ear of 707.
[GKC Autobiography CW16:183]
All right, I know it's funny, but it doesn't quite reveal what I am trying to get at. So here is a more relevant excerpt which I trust will provide a larger view:
There is a very important difference between not understanding a thing and misunderstanding it. And it is misunderstanding that always does harm, where merely not understanding may be relatively harmless. I do not understand trigonometry or logarithms, having cheerfully neglected Mathematics in that happy season when they were known as Maths. But I am better off than a man who supposes that trigonometry has something to do with triggers; or that logarithms are as easy as falling off a log. I do not understand harmony or the higher laws of music; but I am not so dangerous as a gentleman who should wander about the world with the conviction that "contrapuntal" means getting angry with people in punts. These lighter instances are, perhaps, less likely to arise, but in the real cases that do arise a further complication also arises. The misunderstandings commonly come in with culture, and are absent from mere ignorance. The state of being ignorant, which is comparatively innocent, goes with a confession of ignorance, even if it is also a confession of indifference. But the man who misunderstands is the man who is mistaken in supposing that he understands.
[GKC ILN Oct 10 1931 CW35:606]
It's not knowing mathematics but knowing about mathematics. And frankly there are times when I think our dear uncle Gilbert knows and respects such things a lot more than some of us who live with more sophisticated technology.

I shall leave you with another excerpt which may assist you in factoring all this into your own life...
That somewhat snobbish gossip which goes undeservedly by the name of public opinion is very prone thus to make a loop and then lose the original thread. In this, Mrs. Grundy is very like Mrs. Nickleby. I mean that such people always tend to get used even to the unusual thing, and so forget the usual thing; and, above all, forget the difference between them. For them the exception does not provide the rule, but simply becomes the rule. It is like a man going to bed for a slight cold, and then never getting up again till he dies there of old age. It is like a man suddenly taking a holiday for fun, and then never going back to work. Such men have got the logical strength to keep an exception exceptional. To take a symbol from algebra, they always forget to close the brackets. And, as such men would let a bed turn slowly into a death-bed, they would have let a war turn slowly into a deadlock. As they cannot take a holiday and go back to work, so they cannot win a war and go back to peace. As they continued their absurd political pantomimes for months after war was declared, so they will continue their incompetent controls and restrictions for months after peace is declared. As they could not realise that the time had come to restrain licenses, so they will not realise that the time has come to restore liberty. That a bell has tolled, that a trumpet has blown, that a clock has struck, that a moment has come that alters things absolutely and abruptly - this is a notion that never gets into their heads, which are full of a monotonous buzz both in peace and war. But peace and war are in practical politics prodigiously different, and the worst result of drifting indefinitely from one to the other is this fact that the terms do not apply. War is in its nature an abnormal and exceptional thing, which must be definitely begun and definitely ended. War is always between big black algebraic brackets; and if you ignore or remove the brackets, you change all the signs. You change the meaning of every word you use about war when you apply it to peace.
[GKC ILN Dec 14 1918 CW31:394-5]


  1. "primes" "factoring" ... tee-hee! And it is a stirring thing to read in GKC on the significance of algebraic brackets. Hooray!



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