Thursday, August 19, 2010

To See Things As They Are

As I mentioned last week, I had to leave the Conference early when something came up at home requiring my presence on-site. What I forgot to mention then - either at the Conference or in my LENGTHY gurgling last week - was the splendid relevance to one of the truly great quotes from our centennial text, one which I delight in appending to my e-mails, and which is a constant source of irritation to Luddites:
I have often thanked God for the telephone.
[GKC What's Wrong With the World CW4:112]
As I have read the book, I am well aware of the context; I know, far better than most, how difficult technology can be, to use or to be burdened with. (Hee hee! Like the centurion I know what it means to be under authority [Mt 8:9]: to have my cell phone go off and summon me to assist!) Nevertheless, let us recall that it is GOOD to thank God for the telephone, just as we should thank Him for beer and Burgundy. [See Orthodoxy CW1:268] These are indeed human constructions, but they are made with divine gifts. Oh yes: do not make the mistake (as some environmentalists do) of thinking man-made things have nothing to do with God. Beer and telephones are made from materials of physical creation - which are God's gifts, just as wood enters into violins and ground up minerals into tubes of oil paint. But how much more should we thank Him when we recall that these things have been devised by the great gift of the human intellect, and indeed not just by a single man, but by the cumulative power of millennia, summed up and passed on. The gifts of language, of coherent speech - indeed, of coherent thought.... did WE HUMANS invent them ex nihilo from nothing, all by ourselves? Oh no, they were given to us, by God, if only by inspiration. Why would anyone have thought to drink water in which some wheat grains had rotted, or some long-forgotten grape juice? Perhaps it was the 99 percent desperation (hee hee) of a thirsty farmer... Ah, inspiration. But more importantly, education. Most of the time we do no more than pass such gifts on to others. Baking bread or weaving cloth, brewing beer or designing telephones - all these arise in the same fashion as art.

Caution: do not imagine there is some distinction between art and technology. As GKC mentions about science and agnosticism in The Thing CW3:170, this is an error caused by not knowing Latin and Greek, since techne is
Greek for "art", a set of rules or method of doing.

You may call it art or you may call it technology, but under either sense we must be grateful. It is, as we say at Holy Mass, truly right and just to give thanks to God, and a telephone no less than a sunset glorifies Him - in fact, the telephone glorifies Him more than the sunset, for human choice and human activity enters into its making, and even the work of a fallen human is worth far more than a mere stellar furnace, no matter how "artistic" (with the casual sense of "pretty"), how useful, or how large.

I mentioned the concept of "passing on" of human abilities, and used that mystical word "education" - which is what I wish to write about today. And it relates to my introductory, since when my call came and I left the Conference, I was absent from the lecture on Newman and Chesterton - and this man, John Henry Cardinal Newman, is one whom we as Chestertonians ought to know more about.

Perhaps someday there will be a real study made of JHN vis-à-vis GKC... I know that Father Jaki has a book and several essays on Chesterton, and at least four books and several essays on Newman, but (as far as I know) he has not set them adjacent and examined them together. Possibly the lecturer (whom I missed) did this; perhaps others have, and hopefully others will, very soon. We need it. But let us see just a little, in a kind of exploratory manner. I think some interesting things will arise.

But let us, as Chesterton often did, begin our investigation in another place. The following quote is not from either GKC or JHN, but from a mystery fiction detective novel book. In it, a wise and ornery detective is comforting and assisting a young girl who had been seduced by Bad Books...
" are these three Russian crutch-walkers on the table by the bed. We'd better get rid of them now."
There was a whirr of leaves and then three separate thuds as Dostoevski, Tolstoy and Checkov flew out of the open window and struck the bole of an oak tree.
"The idea is," explained H.M. [the detective] "I want you to read some fellers named Dumas and Mark Twain and Stevenson and Chesterton and Conan Doyle. They're dead, yes; but they can still whack the britches off anybody at tellin' a story..."
[John Dickson Carr writing as Carter Dickson, Night at the Mocking Widow 219, emphasis added]
Oh yes!

Now, before you get up in arms about this censorship - or the even more curious list of recommendations, let us visit something even more anger-making. I want you to be good and emotive now so that in a little while you'll have gotten it all out, and THEN you can sit back and read this again and then begin to think about things.

So let us next visit the Index. Oh yes. The horrible intrusion of Papal Power into the literary realm! Yes, well... Just a word or two, you know. I think it is rather funny, especially since I obtained a copy of the Index for 1930 and explored the more than 500 pages of titles and authors it contains. I've bumped into many things in my travels as a computer scientist, but I would guess that over 99 percent of these forbidden titles are unknown, except to scholars, and I doubt that even they could summarize the contents of even one. What's funny for me to imagine is that these days the only thing on the New Index (as devised by the Media and Higher Education) would be papal encyclicals. (I feel the urge to misquote Chesterton here: "We do not need censorship by the Pope. We have censorship of the Pope." [cf Orthodoxy CW1:321]) Hee hee!

But to return to the Index: There were very few that I had ever heard of, even as titles, though a couple were surprising, like Victor Hugo's "Les misérables" and Blaise Pascal's "Pensées". I was discussing this with another young friend at the conference, and I pointed out that the reason for the Index was NOT to stop real intellectual study, but to restrain uninformed people from following dubious or misleading arguments. I said there is a really big difference in the various forms of censorship. Specifically, no reasonable person would give a book on calculus to a first grade student! But this is NOT censorship. It is merely the acknowledgement that one who does not know even the basics of addition, to say nothing of algebra, cannot fathom how that long curly S-shaped integral sign stands for an infinite number of additions... (Not precisely, I know, but let us not do calculus today.)

Ah... perhaps you begin to see what I am trying to point out?

No? Not yet. Perhaps I wondered off too far. (Not likely... ahem!) Ah well, I am just trying to sketch something. Let's keep going - but let us go into Newman now, and maybe he will help illuminate the matter...
Certainly a liberal education does manifest itself in a courtesy, propriety, and polish of word and action, which is beautiful in itself, and acceptable to others; but it does much more. It brings the mind into form, - for the mind is like the body. Boys outgrow their shape and their strength; their limbs have to be knit together, and their constitution needs tone. Mistaking animal spirits for vigour, and over-confident in their health, ignorant what they can bear and how to manage themselves, they are immoderate and extravagant; and fall into sharp sicknesses. This is an emblem of their minds; at first they have no principles laid down within them as a foundation for the intellect to build upon; they have no discriminating convictions, and no grasp of consequences. And therefore they talk at random, if they talk much, and cannot help being flippant, or what is emphatically called "young." They are merely dazzled by phenomena, instead of perceiving things as they are.
[JHN The Idea of a University, Preface]
Did your "Chesterton Quote" alarm just go off? Ah, good - I thought it would. YES, now do you see why I am so thrilled? Is this not the very focus, the burning hearth, the altar of the gods of the home - or what Tolkien calls the Secret Fire of Anor? Well, maybe not, but it certainly is something remarkable. Yeah, yeah, I know some of you want to debate what "liberal education" means - or what "liberal" means, or quarrel about this view of boys. But let's just hear that critical phrase again, but set into first-person plural, and whatever tense (iussive?) this might be:

We must begin to perceive things as they are.

Where's that in Chesterton? Oh, you goose. It's just a hair's-breadth away from the THE QUOTE, better (and more accurately) known as this grand statement of Father Brown:
"It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can't see things as they are."
[GKC "The Oracle of the Dog" in The Incredulity of Father Brown]
And this, in a nutshell, is Newman's argument of at least two of his Discourses from his masterful The Idea of a University.

So what is Doc getting at? Keeping calculus books away from little kindergardners? Chucking Russian novels out the window? Huh? Some old-fangled education scheme? What?

At the very least, I am getting at the real relevance of Newman to our work, and to an application of Chesterton to our consideration of Newman's writing. Sure, I advocate chucking certain books out of windows - yes, even calculus, if the child is not prepared. (Not for always, you understand. But the first time your son holds a bat in his hand you don't ask a pro pitcher to show him a fast ball.) And I advocate the reading of exciting stories with distinct good and even more distinct evil - and not just for children. Let me quote Newman again:
Our desideratum is, not the manners and habits of gentlemen; - these can be, and are, acquired in various other ways, by good society, by foreign travel, by the innate grace and dignity of the Catholic mind; - but the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us, which sometimes indeed is a natural gift, but commonly is not gained without much effort and the exercise of years.
[JHN The Idea of a University, Preface]
Ah, did your GKC quote sensor beep at you again? Check this out:
To become a Catholic is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think... The Catholic convert has for the first time a starting-point for straight and strenuous thinking. He has for the first time a way of testing the truth in any question that he raises. As the world goes, especially at present, it is the other people, the heathen and the heretics, who seem to have every virtue except the power of connected thought.
[GKC The Catholic Church and Conversion CW 3:106]
But I find that GKC's mention of "connected thought" leads me right back to the very same place in Newman:
When the intellect has once been properly trained and formed to have a connected view or grasp of things, it will display its powers with more or less effect according to its particular quality and capacity in the individual. In the case of most men it makes itself felt in the good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candour, self-command, and steadiness of view, which characterize it. In some it will have developed habits of business, power of influencing others, and sagacity. In others it will elicit the talent of philosophical speculation, and lead the mind forward to eminence in this or that intellectual department. In all it will be a faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession. All this it will be and will do in a measure, even when the mental formation be made after a model but partially true; for, as far as effectiveness goes, even false views of things have more influence and inspire more respect than no views at all. Men who fancy they see what is not are more energetic, and make their way better, than those who see nothing; and so the undoubting infidel, the fanatic, the heresiarch, are able to do much, while the mere hereditary Christian, who has never realized the truths which he holds, is unable to do anything. But, if consistency of view can add so much strength even to error, what may it not be expected to furnish to the dignity, the energy, and the influence of Truth!
[JHN The Idea of a University, Preface]
There is far more on this which we must explore, but it will have to be on another occasion. If you have a copy of Newman's book, please read it - or re-read it. If not, I urge you to GET a copy. No, not just borrow it; you will want it, more and more, as time goes on. Please do continue your reading of GKC, but also make a start at Newman. If you want to really deal with what GKC "Education, or the Mistake About the Child" you will need Newman.

And please keep this famous Chesterton line in mind:
...the object of my school is to show how many extraordinary things even a lazy and ordinary man may see if he can spur himself to the single activity of seeing.
[GKC Tremendous Trifles]
Don't you feel an urge to study in Chesterton's own school? Remember that this was nearly the last command of our Lord, "Go and make disciples of all nations". [Mt 28:19] Some translations say "go and teach"; remember that the "disciple" in Latin has the sense of "student". You may get upset if I tell you the Greek looks a lot like "mathematics", but it does. Let us beg our Lord for the grace the blind man begged:
Lord, that I may see! [Luke 18:41]

P.S. I find, upon re-reading this, that I present a certain tone respecting "Catholicism" in regard to education. I don't have any brief way of decomplexifying this just now, except to claim that I could write a lengthy distinguo about what it means. Just as a simple caution, it is not said as a way of "dissing" or condemning those of other beliefs. Perhaps it may help if you recall that "University" and "Catholic" differ only as "Latin" and "Greek" - but even that will mislead. I will just have to let it stand as it is, and hope to address the matter more fully, at another time, in another place.

Also: I have, as you may infer, a very special interest in this matter. You see, I am involved in the foundation of a new University, much as Newman was, and facing the same trials and difficulties. But I have at least this advantage: not only do I have Newman's own writing. I also have Chesterton's. I also hope and pray for their intercession in the effort, and the support of some brilliant young people, some of whom were in attendance at the Conference. Well, actually, perhaps I support them. We work together on such things, after all; we know there are many gifts but the same Spirit.


  1. I was very sad that you missed the Newman talk; of everything I heard, it was the one thing you would have liked best! It seems Newman and GKC were kindred spirits in a lot of ways (though Chesterton is much easier to read, I admit).

  2. But one can always make up for missing a talk by getting it on CD or DVD, which should be available soon.

    Even though I attended most of the talks, I still want to hear them again anyway ;-)


Join our FaceBook fan page today!