Saturday, August 28, 2010

Scruton vs. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton, who was far more likely to describe himself as a liberal than a conservative, has grown more and more important to conservative thinkers over the decades. And yet many of his writings show a commitment to rationalism, radicalism and abstract theory that seem counter to the spirit of conservatism. Take these famous lines from Saint Thomas Aquinas:

The fact that Thomism is the philosophy of common sense is itself a matter of common sense. Yet it wants a word of explanation, because we have so long taken such matters in a very uncommon sense. For good or evil, Europe since the Reformation, and most especially England since the Reformation, has been in a peculiar sense the home of paradox. I mean in the very peculiar sense that paradox was at home, and that men were at home with it. The most familiar example is the English boasting that they are practical because they are not logical. To an ancient Greek or a Chinaman this would seem exactly like saying that London clerks excel in adding up their ledgers, because they are not accurate in their arithmetic. But the point is not that it is a paradox; it is that paradoxy has become orthodoxy; that men repose in a paradox as placidly as in a platitude. It is not that the practical man stands on his head, which may sometimes be a stimulating if startling gymnastic; it is that he rests on his head; and even sleeps on his head. This is an important point, because the use of paradox is to awaken the mind. Take a good paradox, like that of Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Give us the luxuries of life and we will dispense with the necessities." It is amusing and therefore arresting; it has a fine air of defiance; it contains a real if romantic truth. It is all part of the fun that it is stated almost in the form of a contradiction in terms. But most people would agree that there would be considerable danger in basing the whole social system on the notion that necessaries are not necessary; as some have based the whole British Constitution on the notion that nonsense will always work out as common sense. Yet even here, it might be said that the invidious example has spread, and that the modern industrial system does really say, 'Give us luxuries like coal-tar soap, and we will dispense with necessities like corn".

Or take this quotation from What's Wrong with the World:

This definite ideal is a far more urgent and practical matter in our existing English trouble than any immediate plans or proposals. For the present chaos is due to a sort of general oblivion of all that men were originally aiming at. No man demands what he desires; each man demands what he fancies he can get. Soon people forget what the man really wanted first; and after a successful and vigorous political life, he forgets it himself. The whole is an extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis-aller. Now this sort of pliability does not merely prevent any heroic consistency, it also prevents any really practical compromise. [...] If our statesmen were visionaries something practical might be done. If we ask for something in the abstract we might get something in the concrete. As it is, it is not only impossible to get what one wants, but it is impossible to get any part of it, because nobody can mark it out plainly like a map. That clear and even hard quality that there was in the old bargaining has wholly vanished. We forget that the word "compromise" contains, among other things, the rigid and ringing word "promise." Moderation is not vague; it is as definite as perfection. The middle point is as fixed as the extreme point.

Compare this with the words of Roger Scruton in The Meaning of Conservatism:

But it must be remembered that argument is not the favourite pursuit of conservatives. Like all political beings, conservatives are for certain things: they are for them, not because they have arguments in their favour, but because they know them, live with them, and find their identity threatened (often they know not how) by the attempt to interfere with their operation. Their characteristic and most dangerous opponent is not the radical, who stands squarely against them, armed with myths and prejudices that match their own, but rather the reformer, who, acting always in a spirit of improvement, finds reason to change whatever he cannot find better reason to retain. It is from this spirit of improvement, the legacy of Victorian liberalism and social Darwinism, that modern socialists and modern liberals continue to derive their moral inspiration.

Personally, I incline towards Scruton here, and I have to admit that What's Wrong with the World is one of my least favourite of Chesterton's books. The whole work seems pregnant with the radicalism and abstract theorising that wreaked so much havoc on Europe in the twentieth century, and fuels the ongoing (and destructive) cultural revolution of our own time.

Chesterton brilliantly insisted that the human mind must choose between two things: a dogma and a prejudice. Perhaps we should add that we must choose between them in each instance. Dogma is indispensable; and the reactionary and partisan who forgets dogma in the heat of a controversy, such as those who support torture against terrorists or allow the free market to trample on the dignity of the individual, have surely lost their way.

But man cannot live on dogma alone. There are a thousand thousand decisions and instances where dogma does not dictate; and surely conservatives like Scruton are correct, and vindicated by experience, in insisting that (in those instances) tradition is usually a better guide than reason, that the actual and time-honoured should trump the abstract and utopian. And this is not only for the practical reason that our best-laid plans so often turn out to be disastrous, but also for the sake of tradition itself; to preserve the warp and weft of a way of life. The million cobwebs of customs that we sweep away when we "mark out plainly like a map" the society we desire, are often irreplaceable. "An extravagant riot of second bests, a pandemonium of pis aller", often turns out to embody the best of all worlds; as Burke put it, the individual is foolish, but the species is wise.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Probably the Only Poem Ever Written About Swords

I was reading Utopia of Usurers today, and was rather surprised to see that it begins with a verse about something that happened in Swords. Yes, our Swords! I reproduce it here for the edification of readers; but like most of Chesterton's poems (with the exception of the masterpieces like Lepanto), it seems hastily written and the line of thought is difficult to follow. I'm not sure myself what he's talking about in much of it. Maybe it's just me.

Tortured constructions and winding sentences are almost the mark of poor poetry, I think.


"A drove of cattle came into a village called Swords;
and was stopped by the rioters."--Daily Paper.

In the place called Swords on the Irish road
It is told for a new renown
How we held the horns of the cattle, and how
We will hold the horns of the devils now
Ere the lord of hell with the horn on his brow
Is crowned in Dublin town.

Light in the East and light in the West,
And light on the cruel lords,
On the souls that suddenly all men knew,
And the green flag flew and the red flag flew,
And many a wheel of the world stopped, too,
When the cattle were stopped at Swords.

Be they sinners or less than saints
That smite in the street for rage,
We know where the shame shines bright; we know
You that they smite at, you their foe,
Lords of the lawless wage and low,
This is your lawful wage.

You pinched a child to a torture price
That you dared not name in words;
So black a jest was the silver bit
That your own speech shook for the shame of it,
And the coward was plain as a cow they hit
When the cattle have strayed at Swords.

The wheel of the torrent of wives went round
To break men's brotherhood;
You gave the good Irish blood to grease
The clubs of your country's enemies;
you saw the brave man beat to the knees:
And you saw that it was good.

The rope of the rich is long and long--
The longest of hangmen's cords;
But the kings and crowds are holding their breath,
In a giant shadow o'er all beneath
Where God stands holding the scales of Death
Between the cattle and Swords.

Haply the lords that hire and lend
The lowest of all men's lords,
Who sell their kind like kine at a fair,
Will find no head of their cattle there;
But faces of men where cattle were:
Faces of men--and Swords.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Chesterton and Lewis on the Inadequacy of Natural Religion

Chesterton, in Orthodoxy:

THE real trouble with this world of ours is not that it is an unreasonable world, nor even that it is a reasonable one. The commonest kind of trouble is that it is nearly reasonable, but not quite. Life is not an illogicality; yet it is a trap for logicians. It looks just a little more mathematical and regular than it is; its exactitude is obvious, but its inexactitude is hidden; its wildness lies in wait. I give one coarse instance of what I mean. Suppose some mathematical creature from the moon were to reckon up the human body; he would at once see that the essential thing about it was that it was duplicate. A man is two men, he on the right exactly resembling him on the left. Having noted that there was an arm on the right and one on the left, a leg on the right and one on the left, he might go further and still find on each side the same number of fingers, the same number of toes, twin eyes, twin ears, twin nostrils, and even twin lobes of the brain. At last he would take it as a law; and then, where he found a heart on one side, would deduce that there was another heart on the other. And just then, where he most felt he was right, he would be wrong.

It is this silent swerving from accuracy by an inch that is the uncanny element in everything. It seems a sort of secret treason in the universe. An apple or an orange is round enough to get itself called round, and yet is not round after all. The earth itself is shaped like an orange in order to lure some simple astronomer into calling it a globe. A blade of grass is called after the blade of a sword, because it comes to a point; but it doesn't. Everywhere in things there is this element of the quiet and incalculable. It escapes the rationalists, but it never escapes till the last moment. From the grand curve of our earth it could easily be inferred that every inch of it was thus curved. It would seem rational that as a man has a brain on both sides, he should have a heart on both sides. Yet scientific men are still organizing expeditions to find the North Pole, because they are so fond of flat country. Scientific men are also still organizing expeditions to find a man's heart; and when they try to find it, they generally get on the wrong side of him.

Now, actual insight or inspiration is best tested by whether it guesses these hidden malformations or surprises. If our mathematician from the moon saw the two arms and the two ears, he might deduce the two shoulder-blades and the two halves of the brain. But if he guessed that the man's heart was in the right place, then I should call him something more than a mathematician. Now, this is exactly the claim which I have since come to propound for Christianity. Not merely that it deduces logical truths, but that when it suddenly becomes illogical, it has found, so to speak, an illogical truth. It not only goes right about things, but it goes wrong (if one may say so) exactly where the things go wrong. Its plan suits the secret irregularities, and expects the unexpected. It is simple about the simple truth; but it is stubborn about the subtle truth. It will admit that a man has two hands, it will not admit (though all the Modernists wail to it) the obvious deduction that he has two hearts. It is my only purpose in this chapter to point this out; to show that whenever we feel there is something odd in Christian theology, we shall generally find that there is something odd in the truth.

C.S. Lewis, from Miracles:

At every point Christianity has to correct the natural expectations of the Panteist and offer something more difficult, just as Schrodinger has to correct Democritus. At every moment he has to multiply distinctions and rule out false analogies. He has to substitute the mappings of something that has positive, concrete and highly articulated character for the formless generalities in which Pantheism is at home. Indeed, after the discussion has been going on some time, the Pantheist is apt to change his ground and where he before accused us of childish naivety now to blame us for the pedantic complexity of "cold Christs and tangled Trinities". And we may well sympathise with him. Christianity, faced with popular "religion", is continually troublesome. To the large well-meant statements of "religion" it finds itself forced to reply again and again, "Well, not quite like that", or "I should hardly put it that way". This troublesomeness does not of course prove it to be true, but if it were true it would be bound to have this troublesomeness. The real musician is similarly troublesome to a man who wishes to indulge in untaught "musical appreciation"; the real historican is similarly a nuisance when we want to romance about "the old days" or "the ancient Greeks and Romans". The ascertained nature of any real thing is always at first a nuisance to our natural fantasies-- a wretched, pedantic, logic-chopping intruder upon a conversation which was getting on famously without it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Chesterton Goldmine

From Do We Agree?, a transcript (not verbatim, apparently) of a debate between George Bernard Shaw and GK Chesterton:

SHAW: If I own a large part of Scotland I can turn the people off the land practically into the sea, or across the sea. I can take women in child-bearing and throw them into the snow and leave them there. That has been done.
I can do it for no better reason than I think it is better to shoot deer on the land than allow people to live on it. They might frighten the deer.

But now compare that with the ownership of my umbrella. As a matter
of fact the umbrella I have to-night belongs to my wife; but I think
she will permit me to call it mine for the purpose of the debate.
Now I have a very limited legal right to the use of that umbrella.
I cannot do as I like with it. For instance, certain passages
in Mr. Chesterton's speech tempted me to get up and smite him over
the head with my umbrella. I may presently feel inclined to smite
Mr. Belloc. But should I abuse my right to do what I like with
my property--with my umbrella--in this way I should soon be made aware--
possibly by Mr. Belloc's fist--that I cannot treat my umbrella as my
own property in the way in which a landlord can treat his land.
I want to destroy ownership in order that possession and enjoyment
may be raised to the highest point in every section of the community.
That, I think, is perfectly simple.

MR. CHESTERTON: Among the bewildering welter of fallacies which
Mr. Shaw has just given us, I prefer to deal first with the simplest.
When Mr. Shaw refrains from hitting me over the head with his umbrella,
the real reason--apart from his real kindness of heart, which makes
him tolerant of the humblest of the creatures of God--is not because
he does not own his umbrella, but because he does not own my head.
As I am still in possession of that imperfect organ, I will proceed
to use it to the confutation of some of his other fallacies.

I read the above exchange, which gave me a chuckle, through a wonderful site called G.K. Chesterton's Works on the Web, a one-stop shop for all Chesterton's works available as e-texts. (And that's an awful lot of them.) Check it out!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

New Issue of the Chesterton Review

Just a quick post to alert Irish Chestertonians that the Spring/Summer 2010 edition of the Chesterton Review has been published.

The Chesterton Review has been going since 1974 and is full of very meaty articles about Chesterton and related topics.

(And they are meaty; this issue contains a twenty-seven page article on the social and political activism of Cardinal Patrick Moran, an Irishman who became Archbishop of Sidney from 1884 to 1911. You also get a review of Hilaire Belloc's novel Emmanuel Burden that runs to more than twenty pages.)

My own favourite article in this issue was, not surprisingly, by Chesterton himself; "The Dogmas of Free Thought" a reply to the atheist and secularist Robert Blatchford.

Here is more information about the journal and its publishers.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

A Bit of Belloc for a Change

What is still stranger, most people do not connect him [Thomas Cromwell] with the other famous Cromwell, Oliver, though Oliver was his great-nephew. But there is reason for that; it has always paid the official historians in England (and pretty well all English history of the modern sort is official and anti-Catholic) to pretend that Oliver Cromwell was a bluff, middle-class person truly representative of the English people, and to conceal the fact that he was the cadet of an immensely wealthy family, one of the wealthiest in England, whose huge fortunes came entirely from the loot of the Church.

Hilaire Belloc, Characters of the Reformation. As quoted in The Essential Belloc: A Prophet for Our Times, (edited by Rev. C. John McCloskey et al.)

It has been said that a lie will go round the world while truth is putting its boots on. It seems also to be true that the lie will still be running long after the truth has gone to bed. The image of Oliver Cromwell as a noble and obscure Cincinnati, reluctantly drawn from his little farm to serve his country, is still current. It was not until I read these lines from Belloc that I questioned it myself.