Friday, July 30, 2010

In A Manner of Speaking

For the most part we assume that when people say something they mean what they say, and, when the speaker in question is a Chesterton, that he knows what he means. The assumption, however, need not always be literally justified-- we all know that those who insist, usually vociferously, that one say exactly what one means are, to say the least, annoyingly boring....It is for this reason that it is frequently most difficult to make unqualified statements as to what Chesterton meant....Not infrequently, in fact, Chesterton attaches any number of possible meanings to very common expressions, simply in order to get a truth across strikingly.

Quentin Lauer, S.J., GK Chesterton-- Philosopher Without Portfolio

I remembered this passage as I was reading the latest issue of the Chesterton Review, the journal of Seton Hall's GK Chesterton Institute. It features one of Chesterton's articles from his famous debate with Robert Blatchford, in which he makes this point:

Christianity has in any such controversy as this one vast, unquestionable and incurable weakness. It really exists. It is not a question, as with Ideal Secular Republics and rationalistic schemes of State, of what men would do; it is a question of what men have done; of what wicked men, foolish men, ordinary men, did do, in working it out.

These lines might seem to contradict one of Chesterton's most famous dicta: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."

Of course, the apparent contradiction is superficial. Chesterton was hardly saying, in the second instance, that nobody had ever made a serious and successful attempt to live up to the Christian ideal. He was not expressing the same sentiment as Nietzsche when that mad German said: "There was only ever one Christian, and He died on the Cross." If he had really meant that, he would hardly have written his books on St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis Assisi.

In truth, there is no contradiction between the two quotations. There have been societies that can be fairly described as Christian in the ideals and beliefs they affirmed; and even in the ages of faith, the Christian ideal was more honoured than pursued.

The point might seem to be a trite one, but it often occurs to me that serious debate requires a principle of charity when it comes to quotations; nobody benefits when an epigram is taken literally, or an apparent contradiction is seized upon for point-scoring. All this can do is encourage a plodding, pedantic use of language.

The example that actually got me thinking about this was Margaret Thatcher's famous quotation, from an interview with a woman's magazine:

I think we have gone through a period when too many children and people have been given to understand"I have a problem, it is the Government's job to cope with it!" or "I have a problem, I will go and get a grant to cope with it!" "I am homeless, the Government must house me!" and so they are casting their problems on society and who is society? There is no such thing! There are individual men and women and there are families and no government can do anything except through people and people look to themselves first.

I am neither a Thatcherite nor an anti-Thatcherite; but it seems to me rather unfair that Baroness Thatcher has had the phrase "there is no such thing as society" used against her ever since. To say there is no such thing as society is not necessarily to proclaim a belief in a population of atomized, alienated individuals, or to dismiss the importance of social bonds. Of course there is such a thing as society; but it seems perfectly reasonable to remind ourselves, every now and again, that society is not some independent entity, but is actually composed of people.

A mother who is tired of hearing her children promise they will clean their rooms tomorrow might very well say, "Tomorrow never comes"; but nobody would accuse her of putting forward an insane philosophical theory.

Another example, I think, might be John Lennon's notorious claim that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. This has been generally presented as a boast; but, from what I can tell, it would be truer to say that Lennon was deploring the situation, or at least remarking on its absurdity. Even the Beatles themselves, I think, regarded Beatlemania with a certain alarm.

A final example are Donald Rumsfeld's famous words:

There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we do not know we don’t know.

I don't understand why so many people have hooted at these words. They actually seem to me to make a subtle point quite elegantly. Do we really want a public sphere where all figurative, oblique, ironic or aphoristic use of language is out of bounds?

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