Monday, August 29, 2011

Chesterton and the Pursuit of Reason

Here are two quotations from Chesterton. The first is from Orthodoxy:

As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out. Contemplate some able and sincere materialist, as, for instance, Mr. McCabe, and you will have exactly this unique sensation. He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world. Somehow his scheme, like the lucid scheme of the madman, seems unconscious of the alien energies and the large indifference of the earth; it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, or first love or fear upon the sea. The earth is so very large, and the cosmos is so very small. The cosmos is about the smallest hole that a man can hide his head in.

And this one, from St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox:

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 parodoxy 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 necessities 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."

This is far from the only place where Chesterton complains about what I might call English anti-rationalism. He often attacks the English constitution for being an unwritten constitution, and the House of Commons for not having enough space to contain all MPs, should they choose to attend at the same moment. (I don't know if that is still the case.) It has always been the contention of English conservatives in the tradition of Edmund Burke that abstractions are a danger to society; that the delicate ecology of social and national life is best served by irrational-seeming institutions such as monarchy and aristocracy and all the other traditions that have grown up, hugger-mugger and accidentally, through the generations. They believed that tradition was a better guide than reason. Chesterton had far more sympathy than the ordinary Englishman for the rationalism of Rousseau and the French Revolution.

I see Chesterton's point. The disaster of the Reformation would never have happened if the English people had rejected as nonsensical, as they certainly should have, the idea that the English king could be the head of the church. The primacy of the Pope and the sanctity of the Creed was a subject on which theoretical clarity was of paramount importance. The Elizabethan Compromise was a cataclycm, because there can be no compromise when it comes to sacred things.

But politics is not sacred. Even law is not sacred. I think there is a great deal to be said for the theory that Britain never fell sway to totalitarian governments, or suffered brutal civil wars after the time of the Cromwell, because the national temperament was so suspicious of abstract ideas, and of a priori systems applied to the social fabric. Even the radical left preferred Fabianism to communism. Chesterton's hostility to English empiricism and the English people's love of the makeshift and improvised is an attitude I cannot share with him, and I think the quotation from Orthodoxy suggests he should have been more sympathetic to that temperament, and to have appreciated its potential wisdom.


  1. I think you overstate Chesterton's rationalism here, given that one of his recurring criticisms (as in the first quotation) is that rationalism which does not start from a sound understanding of reality/from the proper first principles rapidly becomes inhuman and insane (cf the point in ORTHODOXY about madmen not being irrational but excessively rational). This is exactly Burke's complaint about the Jacobins.
    One of Chesterton's targets is the Calvinism of his ancestors, against which his parents rebelled. He recalled being told that his Calvinist grandfather declared that he would praise God even if he knew God had predestined him to be damned, presumably on the grounds that he was so convinced of God's goodness that God must have good reason for so doing. Given the basic Calvinist assumptions, this is quite logical; the trouble is that it will strike most people as inhuman to say the least.
    Another target would be the sort of political realism or cynicism associated with Lord Salisbury and Arthur Balfour, the leaders of the Conservative Party during Chesterton's formative years. The classic Liberal or Radical criticism of their views (they both BTW were professed Christians, and CS Lewis was strongly influenced by Balfour's apologetic writings) is that when they talked about national honour, historic traditions etc this really boiled down to holding onto their own power and wealth and covering up the very ugly means by which they and their friends attained it. Lord Ivywood in THE FLYING INN is an example of this mindset, though he also owes something to the early nineteenth-century Romantic denunciations of Lord Castlereagh.

  2. You make an excellent point, and one that I think is also illustrated by this quotation from Chesterton's book on Robert Browning:

    "We have seen in our own time a great reaction in favour of monarchy, aristocracy, and ecclesiasticism, a reaction almost entirely noble in its instinct, and dwelling almost entirely on the best qualities and best aspects of the old regime. But the modern man, full of admiration for the great virtues of chivalry which were at the heart of aristocracies, and the great virtue of reverence which is at the heart of ceremonial religion, is not in a position to form any idea of how profoundly unchivalrous, how astonishingly irreverent, how utterly mean, and material, and devoid of mystery and sentiment were the despotic systems of Europe which survived, and for a time conquered, the Revolution."

    However, this seems a rare concession on Chesterton's part. Most of the time he seems to speak disparagingly even of the Tory ideal-- for instance, his discussion of Edmund Burke in What's Wrong With The World:

    "There you have the essential atheist. His argument is that we have got some protection by natural accident and growth; and why should we profess to think beyond it, for all the world as if we were the images of God! We are born under a House of Lords, as birds under a house of leaves; we live under a monarchy as niggers live under a tropic sun; it is not their fault if they are slaves, and it is not ours if we are snobs. Thus, long before Darwin struck his great blow at democracy, the essential of the Darwinian argument had been already urged against the French Revolution. Man, said Burke in effect, must adapt himself to everything, like an animal; he must not try to alter everything, like an angel. The last weak cry of the pious, pretty, half-artificial optimism and deism of the eighteenth century carne in the voice of Sterne, saying, "God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb." And Burke, the iron evolutionist, essentially answered, "No; God tempers the shorn lamb to the wind." It is the lamb that has to adapt himself. That is, he either dies or becomes a particular kind of lamb who likes standing in a draught."

    Of course, I think Chesterton was missing the point a bit here; also that he was missing the essential romance of inherited social institutions.

  3. I have been reading a couple of Chesterton and Belloc-related books lately (including Cecil Chesterton and Belloc's co-authored THE PARTY SYSTEM) and picked up a couple of points which might be relevant to this:
    (a) Belloc was a descendant of Joseph Priestley, the Birmingham chemist and radical who is one of Burke's principal targets in REFLECTIONS.
    (b) THE PARTY SYSTEM has as one of its starting-points an explicit rejection of the Burkean view that MPs should be representatives rather than delegates (i.e. should be elected to vote according to their own best judgement rather than as their electors direct them). It argues that if electors vote according to their own judgement rather than their constituents' they are not representatives at all but an oligarchy. It also explicitly argues that legislation should express "the general will" whereas it has been captured by selfish vested interests - this is the classic viewpoint of Robespierre and the French Revolutionaries. The book's view that political parties suppress popular opinion rather than expressing it is of course a direct rejection of another Burkean view (in THOUGHTS ON THE ORIGINS OF THE PRESENT DISCONTENTS) that parties are necessary to organise public opinion and make it effective.
    Admittedly GKC did not necessarily share all the views of his brother and Belloc, but given their close connection this is suggestive.
    The quote about monarchy is also interesting, because one of the problematic features of the Chesterbelloc is their later advocacy of monarchy (which as they state it amounts to dictatorship - they specifically endorsed Mussolini) as preferable to parliamentary government. Not only is this self-evidently problematic, it is also in contradiction with their mediaevalism, because the sort of absolute monarchy which is glorified in Belloc's life of Louis XIV (to which he gave the title MONARCHY) is a post-mediaeval development quite contrary to the mediaeval idea of corporate government - indeed the Chesterton quote from Browning - which is an early work - applies to it quite precisely.
    What happened here, it seems to me, is that Belloc picked up a version of French nationalist history which glorifies the French early-modern kings for creating a strong state which was then inherited by the Revolution and Napoleon (indeed the view that the French state is the inheritor of monarchical as well as revolutionary traditions is pretty commonplace - cf Tocqueville on THE ANCIEN REGIME AND THE FRENCH REVOLUTION) and presented this as the ideal which Britain should have followed, rather than the Whig view that the triumph of the aristocracy over the Crown was a gain for Freedom.
    Now one thing that is interesting about THE PARTY SYSTEM is that it shows a strong attraction to the American system of a division of powers and presidential government (which is one way of getting round the problem stated by THE PARTY SYSTEM - that members cannot really be independent if the result of a government defeat is an immediate election and a purge of dissident party members). According to Mrs Cecil Chesterton's recollections of her husband and her brother-in-law, Cecil was very interested in and greatly admired America and its system of government, whereas GKC was much less enthusiastic about it (despite his famous lecture tour there). I wonder if Cecil had lived, might he have influenced GKC in a more Americanophile direction and away from Belloc's Francomania? Perhaps not (and the US system of course has its own drawbacks) but it's a thought worth considering.