Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Defence of Capitalism

Proving that the GK Chesterton of Ireland is open to criticism of the great man's ideas, Colm Culleton offers us a critique of GKC's economic philosophy, Distributism, and makes a defence of the capitalism Chesterton often criticised...

Chesterton believed in the economic system called "Distributism", the core of which appears to be that capitalism is not the "natural" state of the economy, and that capitalism treats the workers too harshly. My proposition is that neither of those tenets is correct.

I start by pointing out that there is no such thing as a "Ball of Prosperity", whereby I must become poorer if you become richer by grabbing a piece of the Ball. The fact is that both of us becomes richer at the same time. True, the Third World is much poorer than us, but they were very much worse in the past. Thanks to capitalism, we are all richer now than we used to be, even though there are many more people in the world now. The reality is that a capitalist inevitably makes other people richer from the very fact of making himself richer.

My second basic point is that the Free Market means that both parties who consider trading with each other are free to reject the other’s offer. That is why the market is called "free". The trade does not happen until both parties are satisfied. Not necessarily ecstatic about the trade, but consenting to it. And the reason that they consent is because they derive a benefit from it.

Take a man who invents a gadget called a widget. Either it sells, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, he becomes bankrupt, and drops out of the scenario, thereby evading criticism from Distributionists. So, let’s see what happens when the widgets do make him rich.

Start with the people he pays to build his factory, and those who provide the parts for making the widgets. Whatever he pays them, they are richer than if they don’t work for him, because otherwise they wouldn’t work for him; so he makes no widgets, goes bankrupt, and drops out of the scenario as before.

If he borrows from a bank to get started, he makes the bank richer, from the interest he has to pay. Otherwise, they would not provide the loan.

He makes his employees richer. Whatever it is he pays them, they are willing (but not necessarily ecstatic) to accept, otherwise they wouldn’t work for him at all, he goes bankrupt, and drops out of the scenario.

He improves the lives of his customers, and this, too, is a tangible improvement to their lives. They are content ((not necessarily ecstatic) to pay what he asks, otherwise they wouldn’t buy at all, the man goes bankrupt, and drops out of the scenario.

He will pay taxes, thereby giving the state more money with which to make its citizens better off: health care, roads, schools, and all the rest. True, he will try to evade paying taxes or at least reduce them. Oh, boy!, will he ever! But he has to pay an accountant to provide the figures to make the claim, thereby making the accountant richer.

Let’s say he never spends a penny of his profit. But, when he dies, his next of kin and/or the state will benefit, and begin spending the money, as above.

But he will probably invest his profit, thereby making other companies richer; and they in turn will scatter the same benefits as he did.

All the people who benefit directly from the man will, in turn, go on to make other people richer when they spend the money which came to them. And those people will spend that money on yet other people, and so on and on. And thus, from a combination of ideas and work, the Ball of Prosperity just keeps on getting bigger and bigger. Everybody wins, nobody loses.

-- posted by Colm Culleton

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Gilbert Magazine

Gilbert Magazine is published every six weeks by The American Chesterton Society. It is a must for Chesterton lovers. Here is an extract from the last issue’s editorial on torture.

If waterboarding saves even one life, isn’t it worth it? If torturing a terrorist suspect saved a city from destruction, or if it saved even one life, it would still be a barbaric, savage act, unworthy of a civilized society. If expediency were enough to justify an immoral act, then abortion would be justifiable.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in 1916 that people who purport to defend civilization against barbarians undermine their cause when they resort to barbaric tactics. “The more we insist that the terms must be our terms, the more do we weaken ourselves if the methods are their methods.”

During World War I, when some in England demanded that German soldiers captured on English soil be denied humane treatment, Chesterton countered, “Such small revenges are unworthy of the dignity of indignation. They are also futile and inconsequent.”

Our whole hope of getting a monster killed and not scotched depends upon our keeping fresh the original human horror at its monstrosity. It may be illogical, but it will certainly be natural, if that horror is somewhat dulled if, by the end of the war, everybody seems to be fighting with pretty much the same weapons.

When you torture, you turn the victim into a hero, for there is more honor in defying a torturer than in being a torturer.“A kind of courage can exist in a merciless and unmagnaminous soldier, as it can exist in a merciless and unmagnaminous wild pig,” Chesterton wrote. “But it does not happen to be the kind of courage that our brethren have died to keep alive.”

Posted by Angelo Bottone

Monday, June 21, 2010

Dim Dums Throbbing....

Who was Don John of Austria, and how exactly did he set his people free? Colm Culleton on the history behind Chesterton's most celebrated poem...

The Battle of Lepanto

"Lepanto" is the Italian name for the Greek town of Nafpaktos, which means "dockyard", because Heraclidae built a fleet there very long ago. To locate it on the map, find the long, narrow Gulf of Corinth. The Gulf is open to the west, where it is guarded by two main islands: Cephalonia to the north and Zakinthos (Zante) to the south. (Beside Cephalonia is the tiny island of Ithaca, but nobody famous ever came from there.) About 40 miles into the Gulf, on a bend on the northern shore, is Lepanto.

Originally, Lepanto belonged to the Locri Ozolae, but in 455 BC it was captured by Athens, which established there the Messenian helots, who were the bitter enemies of Sparta. But Sparta captured the town in 404 BC, after which it passed in turn to the Achaeans, the Thesbians, and Philip of Macedon, who gave it to the Aetolians. In 191 BC, it was conquered by after a fierce siege of two months. During the reign of Justinian, it was almost entirely destroyed by an earthquake. It was held by the Turks from 1498 to 1687; by the Venetians for two years; then the Turks again until 1827, at which time it became part of the newly independent Kingdom of Greece. Today Nafpaktos holds about 10,000 people, all of whom Orthodox Greeks.

The Battle of Lepanto took place on 7 October, 1571. At this time, the Turks were all-conquering, having won north Africa and the lands around the Black Sea. They had ejected the Knights of Malta from Rhodes; and in the previous year they had conquered Cyprus (after a long siege of Famagusta), which was then a strategic outpost belonging to the powerful trading nation of Venice. But most important was the Turks’ conquest of the Balkans, which put them within easy reach of Venice itself. At the Battle, the Christian side contained ships from Venice, Spain, Genoa, Savoy, and the Knights of Malta (who took the southern flank in the battle). They had been assembled by the Pope, who then - like now - was frightened for the safety of the Christian West. They were "the Holy League". Their leader was a Spaniard, Don John of Austria, the eldest son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V; and his flagship was the "Real" ["royal"]. Conspicuously absent were France, and the Protestant England of Queen Elizabeth.

The great advantage of the Christians were the six new war-ships hurriedly built by Venice, called "galliasses". These were much more powerful than the old galleys. They had 40-50 guns, crucially mounted along the rail as well as at bow and stern (the galleys’ guns were mounted only at bow and stern). Also, they had higher decks, making them more difficult for enemies to board. But things started badly, when Don John considered that some of the Venetian ships were undermanned, and he insisted on transferring some of his Spanish sailors to them, to the great chagrin of the Venetians.

At the start of the Battle, each fleet contained about 200 galleys and 70 support ships.

The Turks were led by Ali Pasha, and his second-in-command was the pirate Uluç Ali Pasha. By early October, they had been anchored for six weeks inside the fortified harbor of Lepanto, but on October 5 they moved westward into the outer Gulf. Still unsure of his enemy's position, Ali Pasha dropped anchor for the night in a bay fifteen miles from the entrance to the Gulf, just off the tiny island of Oxia. (Indeed, most of the battle took place there, and not near Lepanto at all.) The Turks remained there all next day, anxiously awaiting word from their scouts. At first light on October 7, lookouts signalled that the enemy was approaching the entrance to the Gulf, only 15 miles away. Ali Pasha commanded the centre squadron, which faced the one commanded by Don John.

According to the practice of the day, one of two rival fleets would fire one gun as a challenge to fight, and his opponent would fire twice to signify that he too was ready. This day it was the Turks who made the challenge, quickly followed by a double round from Don John. The Turks hoisted a large green silk banner decorated with the Muslim crescent and holy inscriptions in Arabic. The Christians flew the Cross.

The very first Christian salvo sank many Turkish galleys and badly damaged others. The Christians fought with such incredible ferocity that the battle soon became a slaughter. On the Turks’ right wing, not one galley escaped. The battle itself was over by four o'clock, but the Christians continued to chase down Turkish ships. The sea was strewn with dead bodies from both sides. The crusaders lost 17 ships (including four of their six galliasses), and 7,500 men. The Turks lost 190 ships and over 20,000 men, plus the 15,000 Christians slaves who had powered their ships. (All figures are approximate.) One of those wounded was Cervantes, who lost the use of his left arm, after earlier having needed to be ransomed from the Barbary pirates. Sunset saw the approach of bad weather, so the Christians anchored in a sheltered bay on the northwest of the Gulf. The exultant officers joined Don John to celebrate the victory. Turkey was left without a navy for the first time in centuries.

Word of the fleet's splendid victory at Lepanto quickly spread throughout Europe. Hundreds of poems, songs, and paintings were produced all over Christendom in commemoration of the victory. In Venice, the Doge ordered a week of celebrations, and October 7th was declared a perpetual holiday.

Lepanto was of great importance for ending the myth that the Turkish navy was invincible (though they remained supreme on land). Without it, the Turks would have reigned supreme throughout the Mediterranean. Alas, the success was short-lived, since the Turks appeared the very next year with a new fleet of 250 ships.

Don Juan himself did not live long to enjoy his famous victory: he died in 1578.

posted by Colm Culleton

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Review of The Last Superstition by Edward Feser

“[A] man is not really convinced of a philosophic theory when he finds that something proves it. He is only really convinced when he finds that everything proves it.”

GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

The God debate has been raging for centuries, and in recent years it has been especially animated. There’s a new breed of atheist and secularist who wants to do more than agree to differ with believers; they want to see the back of God. Failing that, they want to drive religion into a corner, tolerated as a private eccentricity, but kept out of policy-making, education and the public square. Extraordinary claims, they say, require extraordinary evidence; the “default mode” of reason is atheism.

The response from Christians has been rather muted. We hear appeals to the religious heritage of our societies; to religious freedom; to the usefulness of Christianity as a kind of social glue. All of which are important arguments, but none of which really face the secularist challenge head-on.

Edward Feser, professor of philosophy at Pasadena City College, in his tour-de-force The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism (2008), takes a different tack entirely:

“But the most important thing to know about the belief that God exists is not that most citizens happen (for now anyway) to share it, that it tends to uphold public morality, and so forth. The most important thing to know is that it is true, and demonstrably so…Nor am I suggesting that these founding elements of our civilization be permitted, hat in hand, to maintain “a place at the table” of some great multicultural smorgasbord alongside the secularist liberalism that seeks to abolish them. I hold instead that they ought to be restored to their rightful place as the guiding principles of Western thought, society and politics, and that, accordingly, secularism ought to be driven back into the intellectual and political margins whence it came, and to which it would consign religious and traditional morality.”

Fighting words, but can Feser live up to them?

He can, and he does. In a stunning survey of Western thought from the time of the Pre-Socratics, he shows how the abandonment of Aristotelian principles was “the single greatest mistake ever made in Western thought”; how all the standard objections to Saint Thomas Aquinas’s famous proofs for God’s existence were made by Aquinas himself, and answered by Aquinas, too; how those same proofs are grossly misrepresented even by professional philosophers.

But he goes deeper. He shows how Aristotle’s “four causes”, regularly dismissed as pre-scientific, are in fact the basis of all common sense and all science; how it is conceptually impossible to have a purely physical explanation of consciousness; how even the most bullishly Darwinistic of philosophers smuggle concepts of function and purpose into their description of living systems.

The poster-boy of secularists, Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, claimed that there is no logical reason we should expect a rock thrown at a window to result in broken glass rather than, say, a bouquet of flowers. “Eliminative materialist” philosophers such as Paul and Patricia Churchland claim that beliefs, desires and other mental states literally do not exist. This sort of intellectual freakshow, Feser shows us, is not the lunatic fringe of materialism and atheism; it is its inevitable conclusion. The “common sense” of rationalists can’t help but end up in what Chesterton called “the suicide of thought”.

Throughout his book, Feser insists that his case is not empirical or based on some kind of balance of probabilities, or the best conclusion from the evidence; it is as airtight as a mathematical demonstration. To go back to my Chestertonian quotation; it is not a philosophy that something proves, but that everything proves.

Feser draws mostly on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. In Chesterton’s own famous book on Aquinas, The Dumb Ox, he writes:

“[T]he philosophy of Saint Thomas stands founded on the universal common conviction that eggs are eggs. The Hegelian may say that an egg is really a hen, because it is a part of an endless process of Becoming; the Berkeleian may hold that poached eggs only exist as a dream exists; since it is quite as easy to call the dream the cause of the eggs as the eggs the cause of the dream; the Pragmatist may believe that we get the best out of scrambled eggs by forgetting that they ever were eggs, and only remembering the scramble. But no pupil of Saint Thomas needs to addle his brains in order adequately to addle his eggs; to put his head at any peculiar angle in looking at eggs, or squinting at eggs, or winking the other eye in order to see a new simplification of eggs. The Thomist stands in the broad daylight of the brotherhood of men, in their common consciousness that eggs are not hens or dreams or mere practical assumptions; but things attested by the Authority of the Senses, which is from God. Thus, even those who appreciate the metaphysical depth of Thomism in other matters have expressed surprise that he does not deal at all with what many now think the main metaphysical question; whether we can prove that the primary act of recognition of any reality is real. The answer is that Saint Thomas recognised instantly, what so many modern sceptics have begun to suspect rather laboriously; that a man must either answer that question in the affirmative, or else never answer any question, never ask any question, never even exist intellectually, to answer or to ask.”

Eggs are eggs, whether they’re scrambled or poached or rotten. A human being is a human being, whether it is a foetus or a patient in a vegetative state. The thought of an egg is the thought of an egg, not the firing of neurons in the brain. And, I can’t help adding, atheists are left with egg all over their face at the end of The Last Superstition.

“But how does this all prove the existence of God?”, you may ask. In answer, I can only say that, though The Last Superstition is an entertaining book, it is not an especially easy book. I’ve read it three times and, though I found Feser’s arguments compelling, I would not even try to summarise his summaries of Aquinas’s famous ways to God. But I can’t imagine anyone reading this book attentively and coming away from it with the impression that physicalism has a leg to stand on.

The prominent atheist PZ Myers has described Edward Feser as a “clueless jerk”. If Western civilization is to survive, we need a lot more clueless jerks like him. I suspect that The Last Superstition is set for the same kind of epoch-making status as books such as Mill's On Liberty or Popper's The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Professor Feser's always lively blog is to be found at

posted by Maolsheachlann

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Welcome to the Blog of the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland!

Why an Irish Chesterton Society?

Because right now, Ireland desperately needs GK Chesterton, that's why.

So who was Gilbert Keith Chesterton?

He was an Englishman. He was a devout Christian, and in the later years of his life, a devout Roman Catholic. He was born in 1874, he died in 1936, and he wrote a whole lot of words in between.

He was a literary genius who produced essays, articles, poems, novels, short stories and biographies that continue to be read and to influence our world.

He was a champion of life, of joy in life, of bottomless gratitude for the gift of life. He was a champion of the ordinary man, of the public house and of the private house. He never tired of attending public meetings, or of defending the sanctity of the home.

He was a fierce debater and controversialist, who took on the brightest intellects of his era-- George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell, HG Wells, and many others.

He argued against socialists, communists, atheists, modernists, prohibitionists, cubists, futurists, fatalists, nihilists and faddists of every stripe-- while never losing his temper or his good humour.

He loved England passionately, and he berated her when she was in the wrong against other nations-- Ireland especially.

Indeed, he had a soft spot of Ireland, writing two whole books about her (Irish Impressions and Christendom in Dublin) and frequently discussing her in his other works.

Just over a hundred years ago, he wrote these words in a book about his friend and sparring partner, George Bernard Shaw:

The average autochthonous Irishman is close to patriotism because he is close to the earth; he is close to domesticity because he is close to the earth; he is close to doctrinal theology and elaborate ritual because he is close to the earth. In short, he is close to the heavens because he is close to the earth.

How things have changed in a hundred years--or in even fewer, considering those words might still have applied fifty years ago!

In the Ireland of 2010, patriotism seems to have little meaning beyond cheering on the national sports teams. The great Gaelic revival of previous generations is mocked, with sniggering references to "comely maidens dancing at the crossroads".

As in the rest of the Western world, domesticity is increasingly under attack by radical individualism and hostility to traditional ideas of family life.

"Doctrinal theology and elaborate ritual" are held in such little esteem that even RTE's twice-daily broadcasting of the Angelus-- a grand total of two minutes air time-- is an outrage to secularists and pluralists. The media's coverage of the Catholic Church goes far beyond legitimate criticism, into the realms of a kulturkampf.

But the malady goes deeper even than that. Our writers and artists increasingly paint a bleak and hopeless view of life. (Take recent Irish films such as Garage and Adam and Paul.) Rates of violent crime and suicide soar. Real people are ritually humiliated on TV for our viewing pleasure.

This is how Chesterton described the atmosphere of his own youth, in a poem dedicated to his best friend, Edmund Clerihew Bentley:

A cloud was on the mind of men
And wailing went the weather,
Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul
When we were boys together.
Science announced nonentity
And art admired decay;
The world was old and ended:
But you and I were gay;
Round us in antic order
Their crippled vices came—
Lust that had lost its laughter,
Fear that had lost its shame...
Life was a fly that faded,
And death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed
When you and I were young.

Who could doubt that these words apply a fortiori to Ireland today?

But GK Chesterton faced the same decadence, the same nihilism, the same corrosive cynicism in his own day. He wrote and spoke against it week after week, year after year, decade after decade. And his example, his books, and his arguments remain.

He understood that the evils he was fighting were as self-destructive as they were destructive. In his great work, the Ballad of the White Horse, a disguised King Alfred tells his Viking enemies why their philosophy contains the seeds of its own doom:

...Though you hunt the Christian man
Like a hare on the hill-side
The hare has still more heart to run
Than you have heart to ride.

...Though all lances split on you
All swords be heaved in vain,
We have more lust again to lose
Than you to win again.

...Our monks go robed in rain and snow
But the heart of flame therein
But you go clothed in feasts and flames
When all is ice within;

Nor shall all iron dooms make dumb
Men wondering ceaselessly
If it be not better to fast for joy
Than feast for misery.

...Therefore your end is on you
Is on you and your kings
Not for a fire in Ely fen
Not that your gods are nine or ten
But because it is only Christian men
Guard even heathen things.

We need an Irish Chesterton Society because post-Catholic, post-religious, post-nationalist, post-agrarian, post-everything Ireland is already weary of its own victory over the past; it seems weary, indeed, of its own existence. The time is propitious for "some cry of cleaner things", and who knows but that a GK Chesterton Society of Ireland might assist, in its humble way, in a national rebirth?

In the meantime, it's fun for Irish Chesterton fans to keep in touch and to share their enthusiasm for this champion of enthusiasm.

This is your Society, and your blog. Both can be whatever you want them to be. Welcome to the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland!

posted by Maolsheachlann (