Thursday, 26 July 2007

Daily Chesterton #3 Heretics [part one]


I. Introductory Remarks on the Importance of OrthodoxyNothing more strangely indicates an enormous and silent evil of modern societythan the extraordinary use which is made nowadays of the word "orthodox."In former days the heretic was proud of not being a heretic. It wasthe kingdoms of the world and the police and the judges who were heretics.He was orthodox. He had no pride in having rebelled against them;they had rebelled against him. The armies with their cruel security,the kings with their cold faces, the decorous processes of State,the reasonable processes of law--all these like sheep had gone astray.The man was proud of being orthodox, was proud of being right. If he stoodalone in a howling wilderness he was more than a man; he was a church.He was the centre of the universe; it was round him that the stars swung.All the tortures torn out of forgotten hells could not make him admitthat he was heretical. But a few modern phrases have made him boast of it.He says, with a conscious laugh, "I suppose I am very heretical,"and looks round for applause. The word "heresy" not only means no longerbeing wrong; it practically means being clear-headed and courageous.The word "orthodoxy" not only no longer means being right; it practicallymeans being wrong. All this can mean one thing, and one thing only.It means that people care less for whether they are philosophically right.For obviously a man ought to confess himself crazy before he confesseshimself heretical. The Bohemian, with a red tie, ought to pique himselfon his orthodoxy. The dynamiter, laying a bomb, ought to feel that,whatever else he is, at least he is orthodox.It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopherto set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Marketbecause they do not agree in their theory of the universe.That was done very frequently in the last decadence ofthe Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object.But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurdand unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy.This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter,and this is done universally in the twentieth century,in the decadence of the great revolutionary period.General theories are everywhere contemned; the doctrine ofthe Rights of Man is dismissed with the doctrine of the Fallof Man. Atheism itself is too theological for us to-day.Revolution itself is too much of a system; liberty itselfis too much of a restraint. We will have no generalizations.Mr. Bernard Shaw has put the view in a perfect epigram:"The golden rule is that there is no golden rule." We are moreand more to discuss details in art, politics, literature. A man'sopinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters;his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over andexplore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object,the universe; for if he does he will have a religion, and be lost.Everything matters--except everything.Examples are scarcely needed of this total levity on the subjectof cosmic philosophy. Examples are scarcely needed to show that,whatever else we think of as affecting practical affairs, we donot think it matters whether a man is a pessimist or an optimist,a Cartesian or a Hegelian, a materialist or a spiritualist.Let me, however, take a random instance. At any innocent tea-tablewe may easily hear a man say, "Life is not worth living."We regard it as we regard the statement that it is a fine day;nobody thinks that it can possibly have any serious effecton the man or on the world. And yet if that utterancewere really believed, the world would stand on its head.Murderers would be given medals for saving men from life;firemen would be denounced for keeping men from death; poisons wouldbe used as medicines; doctors would be called in when people were well;the Royal Humane Society would be rooted out like a horde of assassins.Yet we never speculate as to whether the conversational pessimistwill strengthen or disorganize society; for we are convincedthat theories do not matter.This was certainly not the idea of those who introduced our freedom.When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies,their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveriesmight thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was soimportant that every one ought to bear independent testimony.The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that itcannot matter what any one says. The former freed inquiry as menloose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men fling backinto the sea a fish unfit for eating. Never has there beenso little discussion about the nature of men as now, when,for the first time, any one can discuss it. The old restrictionmeant that only the orthodox were allowed to discuss religion.Modern liberty means that nobody is allowed to discuss it.Good taste, the last and vilest of human superstitions,has succeeded in silencing us where all the rest have failed.Sixty years ago it was bad taste to be an avowed atheist.Then came the Bradlaughites, the last religious men,the last men who cared about God; but they could not alter it.It is still bad taste to be an avowed atheist. But their agonyhas achieved just this--that now it is equally bad tasteto be an avowed Christian. Emancipation has only lockedthe saint in the same tower of silence as the heresiarch.Then we talk about Lord Anglesey and the weather, and call itthe complete liberty of all the creeds.But there are some people, nevertheless--and I am one of them--who think that the most practical and important thing about a manis still his view of the universe. We think that for a landladyconsidering a lodger, it is important to know his income, but stillmore important to know his philosophy. We think that for a generalabout to fight an enemy, it is important to know the enemy's numbers,but still more important to know the enemy's philosophy.We think the question is not whether the theory of the cosmosaffects matters, but whether in the long run, anything else affects them.In the fifteenth century men cross-examined and tormented a manbecause he preached some immoral attitude; in the nineteenth century wefeted and flattered Oscar Wilde because he preached such an attitude,and then broke his heart in penal servitude because he carried it out.It may be a question which of the two methods was the more cruel;there can be no kind of question which was the more ludicrous.The age of the Inquisition has not at least the disgrace of havingproduced a society which made an idol of the very same man for preachingthe very same things which it made him a convict for practising.Now, in our time, philosophy or religion, our theory,that is, about ultimate things, has been driven out,more or less simultaneously, from two fields which it usedto occupy. General ideals used to dominate literature.They have been driven out by the cry of "art for art's sake."General ideals used to dominate politics. They have been drivenout by the cry of "efficiency," which may roughly be translatedas "politics for politics' sake." Persistently for the last twentyyears the ideals of order or liberty have dwindled in our books;the ambitions of wit and eloquence have dwindled in our parliaments.Literature has purposely become less political; politics havepurposely become less literary. General theories of the relationof things have thus been extruded from both; and we are in aposition to ask, "What have we gained or lost by this extrusion?Is literature better, is politics better, for having discardedthe moralist and the philosopher?"When everything about a people is for the time growingweak and ineffective, it begins to talk about efficiency.So it is that when a man's body is a wreck he begins,for the first time, to talk about health. Vigorous organismstalk not about their processes, but about their aims.There cannot be any better proof of the physical efficiency of a manthan that he talks cheerfully of a journey to the end of the world.And there cannot be any better proof of the practical efficiencyof a nation than that it talks constantly of a journeyto the end of the world, a journey to the Judgment Day andthe New Jerusalem. There can be no stronger sign of a coarsematerial health than the tendency to run after high and wild ideals;it is in the first exuberance of infancy that we cry for the moon.None of the strong men in the strong ages would haveunderstood what you meant by working for efficiency.Hildebrand would have said that he was working not for efficiency,but for the Catholic Church. Danton would have saidthat he was working not for efficiency, but for liberty,equality, and fraternity. Even if the ideal of such men weresimply the ideal of kicking a man downstairs, they thoughtof the end like men, not of the process like paralytics.They did not say, "Efficiently elevating my right leg, using,you will notice, the muscles of the thigh and calf, which arein excellent order, I--" Their feeling was quite different.They were so filled with the beautiful vision of the man lyingflat at the foot of the staircase that in that ecstasy the restfollowed in a flash. In practice, the habit of generalizingand idealizing did not by any means mean worldly weakness.The time of big theories was the time of big results.In the era of sentiment and fine words, at the end of theeighteenth century, men were really robust and effective.The sentimentalists conquered Napoleon. The cynics couldnot catch De Wet. A hundred years ago our affairs forgood or evil were wielded triumphantly by rhetoricians.Now our affairs are hopelessly muddled by strong, silent men.And just as this repudiation of big words and big visionshas brought forth a race of small men in politics,so it has brought forth a race of small men in the arts.Our modern politicians claim the colossal license of Caesarand the Superman, claim that they are too practical to be pureand too patriotic to be moral; but the upshot of it all is thata mediocrity is Chancellor of the Exchequer. Our new artisticphilosophers call for the same moral license, for a freedomto wreck heaven and earth with their energy; but the upshotof it all is that a mediocrity is Poet Laureate. I do not saythat there are no stronger men than these; but will any one saythat there are any men stronger than those men of old who weredominated by their philosophy and steeped in their religion?Whether bondage be better than freedom may be discussed.But that their bondage came to more than our freedom it willbe difficult for any one to deny.The theory of the unmorality of art has established itself firmlyin the strictly artistic classes. They are free to produceanything they like. They are free to write a "Paradise Lost"in which Satan shall conquer God. They are free to write a"Divine Comedy" in which heaven shall be under the floor of hell.And what have they done? Have they produced in their universalityanything grander or more beautiful than the things uttered bythe fierce Ghibbeline Catholic, by the rigid Puritan schoolmaster?We know that they have produced only a few roundels.Milton does not merely beat them at his piety, he beats themat their own irreverence. In all their little books of verse youwill not find a finer defiance of God than Satan's. Nor will youfind the grandeur of paganism felt as that fiery Christian felt itwho described Faranata lifting his head as in disdain of hell.And the reason is very obvious. Blasphemy is an artistic effect,because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction.Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it.If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to thinkblasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will findhim at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.Neither in the world of politics nor that of literature, then,has the rejection of general theories proved a success.It may be that there have been many moonstruck and misleadingideals that have from time to time perplexed mankind.But assuredly there has been no ideal in practice somoonstruck and misleading as the ideal of practicality.Nothing has lost so many opportunities as the opportunism ofLord Rosebery. He is, indeed, a standing symbol of this epoch--the man who is theoretically a practical man, and practicallymore unpractical than any theorist. Nothing in this universeis so unwise as that kind of worship of worldly wisdom.A man who is perpetually thinking of whether this raceor that race is strong, of whether this cause or that causeis promising, is the man who will never believe in anythinglong enough to make it succeed. The opportunist politicianis like a man who should abandon billiards because he was beatenat billiards, and abandon golf because he was beaten at golf.There is nothing which is so weak for working purposesas this enormous importance attached to immediate victory.There is nothing that fails like success.And having discovered that opportunism does fail, I havebeen induced to look at it more largely, and in consequenceto see that it must fail. I perceive that it is far morepractical to begin at the beginning and discuss theories.I see that the men who killed each other about the orthodoxyof the Homoousion were far more sensible than the peoplewho are quarrelling about the Education Act. For the Christiandogmatists were trying to establish a reign of holiness,and trying to get defined, first of all, what was really holy.But our modern educationists are trying to bring about a religiousliberty without attempting to settle what is religion or whatis liberty. If the old priests forced a statement on mankind,at least they previously took some trouble to make it lucid.It has been left for the modern mobs of Anglicans and Nonconformiststo persecute for a doctrine without even stating it.For these reasons, and for many more, I for one have cometo believe in going back to fundamentals. Such is the generalidea of this book. I wish to deal with my most distinguishedcontemporaries, not personally or in a merely literary manner,but in relation to the real body of doctrine which they teach.I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artistor a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic--that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihoodto differ from mine. I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shawas one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive;I am concerned with him as a Heretic--that is to say, a man whosephilosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century,inspired by the general hope of getting something done.Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something,let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire topull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages,is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid mannerof the Schoolmen, "Let us first of all consider, my brethren,the value of Light. If Light be in itself good--" At this pointhe is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rushfor the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they goabout congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality.But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some peoplehave pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light;some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness,because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of alamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smashmunicipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something.And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes.So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day,there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all,and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only whatwe might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discussin the dark.

1 comment:

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