Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The Faith and the Virgin

Protestants (of whom I formerly was one) entirely misunderstand the Catholic Faith when they do not understand that its truthfulness, its veracity, its reality is not merely something that is demonstrated beforehand in each particular, but rather something that is seen and grasped and known fully only in practice, as a totality.
The Faith is the term of relation between God and man, between God and human beings together and individually; it is only in this relationship that its Sacraments and its dogmas find their meaning. When coming from the outside, especially, one properly has recourse to rational demonstrations of the Faith's basic truthfulness, and of the rational consistency or necessity of various individual doctrines. But once inside, most of what is learned is learned not through abstract demonstration, but through the actual, faithful practice of the Faith. This Faith, once accepted, becomes an object of ever-deepening reflection, and quite practical experience and demonstration. Only thus is it be finally proven as a thing beyond all doubt.
The greatest example of this basic principle is the devotion paid within the Church to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. To Protestants, this is something utterly bewildering, even frightening; which is, all things considered, fairly natural. All the doctrines of the Church concerning the Virgin Mary can be found, indeed, in some form in the Scriptures; but the basic datum of the Catholic Faith concerning Mary--a perception of her as immeasurably precious and worthy of honor, the greatest possible source of help, a participant in a direct and loving maternal relationship with the Church as a whole and the individual believer--is not an abstract proposition found literally in the Bible taken as a simple text: it is an awareness that is gained only through the actual practice of relating to Mary. It is from this relationship, taken in conjunction with Revelation written and unwritten, and NOT from the text of the Scripture taken in isolation, that all the Catholic dogmas about Mary arise.
The Catholic devotion to Mary arose because it is real; that is, it is something which it is in the power of every man, certainly every Christian, to carry out, and so to test for himself. When a man makes this test, he will discover certain things, not as doubtful deductions from a text, but direct and practical certainties of the sort that form the basis of all human lives and all relationships. He will *know* that Mary is good, and loving, and beautiful, and that it is a good thing to show her honor, and to ask her for help. He will *know* that this honor is pleasing to God and to Christ, that through it God gives him graces and blessings and true knowledge of Him. He will find that the more he honors Mary, the closer he draws to her, the more he calls on her for help in his weakness--the more too will he actually find himself loving Christ, praying to him and adoring him with simplicity and trust, knowing him not as an abstraction but as a living human being and a living God. He will find, too, that the more he loves and cherishes Mary for the sake of God, the more he is able to see his neighbor as worthy of honor and of cherishing love, to perceive him with eyes of mercy, and love him with the love of Christ. All of these things will be to him--as they are to me--practical, tested facts of experience. They certainly will be explicated, enhanced, and buttressed by the declared dogmas of the Church concerning Mary, and the words of Scripture where she finds mention; but their certainty and reality will not be based merely on these things.
It is, in fact, from this undying font of devotion that the Church drew the stated facts of her dogmas, and the enjoined precepts of her practices, concerning the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the 5th century, the brilliant Patriarch Nestorius condemned the popular practice of honoring her as the Mother of God--but against Nestorius, in the humble devotion of Christians and the words with which they called upon the Virgin, the Church found the seeds of the most profound and the truest account of the nature of Christ, and, eventually, of human nature itself. This basic pattern is repeated in every age: the wise condemn the devotion of the people for Mary, yet in the end it is from this devotion that there is born the most subtle, the wisest, and the truest ideas of philosophy and theology.
I hope and pray that all of you will, like me, come to know the great goodness and love of Mary, a simple human being like us, created out of nothing, who standing in the room of Nazareth received into her body and soul the ineffable Godhead and gave him her flesh for our salvation, and who standing by the Cross of Christ suffered with him and so became the Mother of all humanity, and of each one of us. It is by her and her human love that God wills to manifest to each one of us his eternal love.
It is a certain truth that Mary loves us and intercedes for us with God; and it is one that each one of us ought to test for ourselves.

A Personal Anecdote

People are endlessly fascinating. If I ever were to write the story of my life, much of it would consist (as does GKC's autobiography) of random anecdotes and descriptions of people I've encountered or spoken to along the way. I value the tiniest amount of genuine personal experience and insight over a thousand terrabytes of scientific data: and a large part of what I've learned about the world I've learned merely from engaging with people.

Today, an experience reminded me of an encounter that made a profound impact on me at the time, and has shaped my thinking in a lot of areas since. It was probably three or four years ago now, during my undergraduate years at a fairly small Evangelical school in the South. It was summer, a blazing, humid, grubby little summer day of the sort that only Alabama at its worst seems to produce. I was on my way home, walking across campus to meet my father, when I saw something I've never been able to forget: a very elderly African-American man, dressed in the uniform of a UPS delivery man, pushing a heavy package on a handcart. What made me stop and turn around, though, was the fact that this old man could barely walk: he was completely disabled, unable to stand on his own, and as I walked easily by, he was using the handcart as a walker, inching his way painfully a footstep at a time, barely moving at all, and sweating profusely in the miserable heat.

The campus was not crowded at this time, but there were people occasionally walking by--young, healthy men and women who could have moved the cart ten times faster than he. Almost all ignored him. I remember vividly a young woman walking by and giving him a kindly, indulgent smile. I am not quite sure what she was smiling about.

Anyway, after a moment or two of thought, I retraced my steps, and offered to help the old man take his package the hundred or so feet to the building he was going to--a journey that would have taken me probably less than a minute. To my surprise, he absolutely refused my offer. It was, he told me, sweating and shaking from the heat and the exertion of his task, against UPS's rules to allow anyone but him to deliver the package, for safety and liability reasons: and if I were to be injured somehow in delivering it, he would get into severe trouble. The odds of me being injured pushing a handcart a hundred feet across pavement were, of course, infinitesimally low; but when I tried to say this, he grew even more strident in his refusals. I, he insisted, had a future. I was here at this university to get an education and make it in the world. If I were to be injured helping "some old black man," he was sure, my parents would be absolutely furious. They wouldn't understand my behavior at all! They paid good money to send me to school so I could get an education and make something of myself. They didn't want me helping "some old black man."

There was very little I could do at that point; but I stayed nearby him, at least, as the scenario grew (to my eyes) ever stranger and more surreal. There I was, a young, healthy man, standing silently while a disabled old man pushing a handcart sweated and shook and insisted, in the very strongest of terms, that no one would either want or allow me to help him. The old man's already snails' pace slowed even further as he continued to talk to me, losing all awareness of time or space, repeating the same phrases over and over again, embellishing them with dismal claims about the nature of society and anecdotes from his life and those of people he knew. I'm afraid I no longer remember most of them. I don't know if he got some kind of enjoyment or catharsis from shouting at me; I hope he did. In any event, I had no intention of leaving him.

So there we went, for about half an hour in the end, covering less ground than I could have in fifteen seconds. The more I listened, the sadder and the more angry I became; not at him, but at the horror of what I was witnessing: an old, disabled man, in a supposedly just and prosperous society, at a Christian university no less, killing himself for the smallest bit of livelihood.

Eventually, he (somehow) reached his destination, and delivered his package. By that time, I had belatedly offered to get him some bottled water at least; and this he had accepted. The administrator whose package it was received him with another kindly, indulgent smile (again a reaction I found puzzling, to say the least) and offered him a temporary rest in the air-conditioned interior. I brought him some bottled water, and at this point, he did thank me, wearily but sincerely. Then he said farewell, and we parted; and I have never seen him since. Possibly he is out there still, struggling to deliver packages.

This experience had a profound impact on me, to say the least; though for the moment I told no one of what had happened. I have rarely talked of it since. Relationships are too important and too mysterious to be publicized wantonly, or turned into anecdotes whose only point is their impact on the one who experiences them; and this old man and I had formed a relationship, no matter how strange, during the half-an-hour in which we sweated outside in the Alabama heat.

Laid out like this, you could make this anecdote about any number of different things. Race, certainly; class, most definitely; a lack of respect for the elderly and the disabled, naturally; not to mention, of course, an economic system and a society that systematically prizes money and convenience over human persons and their needs. But to take a person and his sufferings and make him *about* an issue is to miss the whole point. Really, it's the other way around.

An old man, a person, has suffered for most of his life grave injustice in the midst of great prosperity; and his suffering has been ignored and overlooked by those who could have helped him. That is the point; that is the reality. I don't know--I don't need to know, necessarily--who exactly or what precisely caused that to be: though I believe the most fully fitting term would be "sin." But whatever caused this to happen, whether it be human malice or indifference or culture or racism or economic systems or even the iron laws of fate itself--whatever caused this should be destroyed. That much I am sure of, and always will be.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Relational Realities

Male and female are relation realities. "Personality" is a relational reality. The human person itself is a relational reality.
It is no coincidence that Late Modern Americans have so many grave and profound doubts about the existence of all three. We don't relate directly to things anymore, let alone persons. We relate to images, which are related to other images, which are related to text captions. Our most sacred dogma is the existence of the Absolute Individual Self that consumes and uses and chooses everything for itself without qualification, while being itself subject to or dependent on or in relation to nothing. Our idea of knowledge is "Science," which means the total subjection of a being as "object" to the knowledge and control of this Absolute Self, and the rejection of all aspects of that being not capable of being so controlled and subjected. Every reality that is relational and interdependent has to be rejected inasmuch as it is not capable of such mono-directional subjection, or, in other words, inasmuch as its existence acts inevitably as a limitation on the control and willing of the idealized Absolute Self.
The terms of any relation are mutually interdependent at the very least qua related. Inasmuch as a particular relation is constitutive of the essence of one term, that term is dependent for its existence and coherency on the other term. If both terms are constituted by that relation, neither is capable of being understood or existing apart from the the other.
The classic instance and limit case of this in Christian philosophy was of course the Trinity, where God himself exists as a Trinity of Persons that are (as Aquinas argues) nothing other or more than the relations by which they are constituted: the Person of the Father having no existence apart from his begetting of the Son, the Son existing only as begotten in relation to the Father as begetter, and the Holy Spirit existing only by way of the relationship of Procession from them both.
What makes you a human person, then, is primarily your constitutive relation with the Trinitarian God as the source of all reality, and then secondarily your interdependent and constitutive relations with other human persons, as well as your various relations with all the other creatures of the cosmic order. What makes you a male or female person is in the first place your interdependent and inter-coherent relation with persons of the opposite sex, which primary relation itself impacts in various ways your relations with other creatures and objects of the cosmic order. What makes you a particular person with a particular personality is the irreducible particularity of each of these relationships in your actual concrete existence as opposed to abstract universal form, and all the fine modalities present in each one.
None of these things are "subjective": none of them is manufactured by the individual human mind or society playing tricks on itself. At the same time, none of these things is able to be coherently grasped apart from the various relations that constitute it.
Our modern anti-relational philosophy, indeed, is itself dependent on relational reality; it merely replaces every one of these relations with a single mono-directional relation with an idealized Absolute Self. This Absolute Self is in a sense a twisted, monstrously anthropomorphized and psychologized (and incidentally anti-Trinitarian) vision of the monotheistic God; but in its deepest reality it is rather an idealized limit case of the (powerful, wealthy, characteristically male) human person as knower and controller of the natural world and other persons. Reality as a whole, then, is divided up into various instances or approximations to the relation between absolutely controlling and willing Self and the absolutely controlled and known Object. Systems formed on in reaction to or rejection of this system still base their view of reality on it--as should be massively evident from even a shallow perusal of our current intellectual world.
Inasmuch as we refuse to acknowledge relational reality, we will have no choice but to abolish and dogmatically deny most of reality. The human person, as such, will have to be abolished. This is, more or less, what our society at the moment is working towards.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Philosophy and Matter

One of the most difficult things in philosophy to define and understand seems to me, oddly enough, to be matter. Understanding what it is that makes a thing "material," what exactly "matter" is, and what role it plays in schemes of understanding, is in practice monstrously difficult. If you put together all the different ideas of what matter is or has been in various philosophical systems, it's hard to see how we're even talking about the same thing.
The basic problem of matter is how you can have something left over when something dies or ceases to exist; as well as how something can pass over from one thing to another. Hence, the most basic idea of "matter" is simply material, in the sense of something out of which something else is made; if you make a statue out of marble, that marble remains distinct from the image you make in it, and you can later reuse that same marble to make something else. Yet "matter" in the philosophical sense is the attempt to describe a universal medium for all or at least a large class of objects--one in some way distinct from the regular, intelligible being of that object or, indeed, of that of any of the class of material objects.
The ancients and Medievals were all agreed, more or less, in seeing matter as a source of disorder and unintelligibility in things: whether Plato's material imposing necessity on the demiurge to Aristotle's pure potency receiving act. The basic idea in all these systems is the imposition of intelligible reality onto some more or less unintelligible material that delimits and conditions it. What exactly it does, and why and in what sense it even exists, is complex, and different in different systems. Even here, though, the basic problem is always to explain why this matter even has to exist, both as a means of explanation, and as a part of the cosmos; the other basic question is what relationship precisely it has with intelligible reality. These were all questions the ancients and Medievals were well aware of, and spent a lot of time trying to answer. I'm broadly a Thomist, and find the general Aristotelean-Scholastic account mostly satisfactory; but it still leaves me with a lot of questions, and I would have to study and think a lot more to really answer them. Perhaps I will write more on this topic at some point.
Starting in the modern period, we seem to move to a large-scale view that takes matter somehow both as the source of order, intelligibility, and even existence in things, and also as the realm of external knowledge and control opposed categorically to the mind as controller and knower. This meant that matter was often taken in a purely mathematical sense--to give a "material" account of an object is to give an account of it entirely in terms of quantitative relationships between discrete quality-less objects. By doing so, one exhausts the object entirely--nothing is left over besides subjective elements whose real origin is in the self. Yet if matter is simply mathematical, then it's hard to see what matter actually adds to mathematics; and since mathematics is itself an intelligible discourse of mind, matter as a discrete category opposed to mind ends up being rather slippery, to say the least. Hence, this idea of matter produced not only systems that made everything material, but also idealist systems that eliminated matter entirely.
As this account shows, the roots of this view are highly subjective, in the sense that they take the individual human self and its relationship with the world to be a constitutive element of philosophy. We move, essentially, from a more or less open account of things in themselves--usually with an explicit divine mind as governor or creator--to a view where the human mind itself takes the role formerly held by God, so that objects can be defined largely or entirely by their relation to the idealized individual self. It's not clear to me, in fact, if 'material' in the modern sense often means anything more or less than 'manipulable' or 'capable of systematization and control according to mathematical schema' or even simply 'external to the self.' Otherwise, it's hard to see what exactly 'matter' as a categorical phenomenon is contributing to these schema in terms of philosophical explanation.
Modern science here certainly provides important information; especially since the modern relativistic and quantum revolutions have succeeded in almost completely overturning the older, purely mathematical and deterministic ideas of matter I've talked about. Still, as always, pure science is very confusing, and highly in need of philosophical interpretation. I certainly believe an Aristotelean interpretation of modern physics is possible; and, indeed, such explanations are treated as increasingly attractive and persuasive by modern philosophers of science. Still, the question of how to fit matter in with *any* philosophical scheme remains, I believe, a difficult one.

Progressivism and Justice

There is really a terribly lot to be said for contemporary mainstream progressive culture & politics: that culture which contrives to enfranchise and liberate and equalize endlessly, into the brave future. Above all else, its forthright moralism, dogmatism, and growing embrace of social sanction are bracing and attractive, and a welcome change from the dull consensus liberalism of '90s American politics. It is such clarity, after all, that makes genuine dialog, and a genuine politics, possible. Likewise, its basic political and social instincts, of compassion for minorities and the suffering and a generalized beneficence for all, are positive, and vastly preferable, again, to the ignorance and callousness of older liberal and conservative politics.
The very worst thing, though, that can be said about such culture and such politics is that it is mostly engaged in turning universal human goods into luxuries. There seems to be no human and philosophical background at all; and this means that whatever good it does, it can only ever do to the few, never to the many.
It is hard to fathom the kind of breathless optimism that can move from one favored minority to another, bestowing belatedly on each in turn such goods as "rights," "dignity," "justice," or (heaven help us) "freedom," while continuously anticipating doing the same for other as-yet-undiscovered minorities in the future. Now if these words have any meaning at all, surely such things as "dignity" and "freedom" are simply universal human needs--if not simply universal human possessions. Certainly they are things that belong to, or at least are owed to, the vast mass of humanity. If there is an unlimited set of groups of people out there lacking them, waiting in darkness for society to bestow these goods on them--groups we will never know about until the next turn of the Zeitgeist--this would seem little reason for optimism of any sort. This is in fact, inasmuch as it is taken seriously, a shockingly, monstrously black view of the cosmos; an infinite, nihilistic oroboros of suffering and indignity and incompleteness. Certainly, some people (mostly on the more radical fringes of Right and Left) seem to realize this fact; but the mainstream of American progressive culture and politics chugs merrily along regardless.
This is, of course, not to say that there are not real groups in society that suffer injustice and should be helped; far, far from it. The trouble with mainstream progressives is not that they fight injustice too much, but that they fight it too little; or rather, that they have no genuine concept of justice on the basis of which even to begin, let alone prosecute and conclude, such a fight.
What is missing from all of this, in fact, is any view of the human person as such: what it possesses, what it requires, what it wants, what is good for it, what is bad for it, what it is. Universal philosophy has dropped out, and been replaced, mostly, with class--that is, general impressions and similarities made in people by their experiences of life and material consumption. Such Progressive culture and politics, in fact, is essentially and not accidentally the creation of elite culture; it is born of, and subsists in, this strange, sheltered world of twinned luxury and desperation.
If we had some idea of what a human being is, and what human beings require and possess, we could work, consistently and laboriously, to affirm the latter and ensure the former. If we encountered people lacking basic human goods, with their humanity unacknowledged by themselves or others, we would be rightly horrified and seek to undo this outrage; but our movement would be an urgent and limited defense, based on that which is truly necessary for everyone, not an endless, beneficent gifting by the elite to a few. It is precisely because we lack any such idea that we can, seemingly, conceive of no model of life or justice more substantive than the continual manufacturing of luxuries and their beneficent bestowing on various people and groups according to their and our tastes and desires.
What is most horrifying about contemporary mainstream progressivism, then, is precisely its lack of any sense of proportion. Eternal, necessary human things are set side by side with doubtful novelties; we contrive to give people both what they already have and what they have never conceived of or wanted, and expect to be praised equally for both. In this, all too often, we forget to give them what they desperately need, only to belatedly discover it and throw it in later, as a kind of bonus.
People in our day constantly contrive to suggest that such things as "community," "family," and "meaning" are new goods, recently discovered, whose spontaneous creation and generous bestowal is a matter for surprise and celebration. Things that had been universal possessions of all human beings become, by a kind of magic, luxury goods for a lucky few. Such discourse exists, in fact, precisely because the majority do lack these things, or rather have been robbed of them--but no acknowledgement of this is ever made. The few ruin the homes and lives and livelihoods of the many, and then sell bits of the ruins to their fellow elites, with a tithe given to charity.
This is very much of piece with the kind of political discourse and the kind of culture where "jobs"--i.e. the human possession of the necessities of life and their creation through labor--are treated as gifts generously bestowed by corporations, rich men, and governments on the grateful masses. It is very much of a piece with a consumer class that, in everything, contrives to blur luxury and necessity, human dignity and self-esteem, pleasure and suffering, meaning and meaninglessness: where the Apple iPhone, "healthy food," "self-care," and "human contact" are all available for purchase from the same corporation, and at greatly varying prices.
In truth, all this optimism is only the meaningless grin of the madman. It is built on a refusal to understand reality; a preference for freedom over love.
There is no possibility of this culture and politics ever achieving real solidarity or popularity among the majority of the people--except, indeed, as it manages to extend some kind of effective patronage to the masses. The Servile State of Belloc is the obvious choice here; the people will suffer any amount of indignities, any number of bizarre fads, from their masters, so long as their basic necessities are provide for. But such politics, and such culture, will still only be that of the few. It will still not have anything to do with the genuine common good of the whole society.
If we wish to recover real justice, and the real common good, then, we cannot be satisfied with the mere progressivism of the Zeitgeist, no matter how seemingly compassionate or intelligent it may be. We must dare to think of the permanent things--we must dare to do philosophy. Only on the basis of what is universal and true can we truly accomplish good, even in limited or ambiguous cases. Only if we love what is permanent can we have true progress.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Technology, the Market, and the Good

The governing realities of contemporary life are technology and the market. Increasingly, man knows himself, others, and the world as a whole principally through and in these systems.
That is, one's own self, other persons, the world as a whole, are known and defined first and foremost as technological--that is, as capable of manipulation by and subjugation to the a-rational desires and ideally disembodied willings of the self, known precisely and circularly as the unlimited locus of will and desire. "The market"--conceived of as an idealized system for the unlimited production, increase, and distribution of quantified technological power, as well as the maximally efficient application of this power to all areas of existence--is an outgrowth of the same basic idea.
In a sense, these mindsets are as old as humanity itself; and they are of course capable, to varying degrees, of being moderated and integrated into larger ethical, moral, and cosmic systems. Yet what makes our time in many ways so unique is the purity and breadth of their application to the lives of human beings.
To a very great extent, these systems are taken not merely as means, or even ends--they have, rather, precisely the same force that ideas of nature and being hold in philosophical systems. Commerce and technology are treated not merely as economic, but ontic, realities. This is partly due to a general epistomological and societal breakdown; family, community, philosophical systems, and religion have all collapsed, while technology and commerce have only grown stronger. The former seem, increasingly, distant and hard to believe in; while the power of the latter is obvious, inescapable, and, in many ways, truly defining.
The perception of contemporary man, then, is that everything good (in the most basic sense of "desirable" or "perceived as a proper object of the will") is able to be either directly manipulated or purchased. In this way, objects present themselves to our wills and our minds precisely as objects of subjugation or exchange; and the basic mode of interaction between the self and all things not itself is the assertion of technological power. Of course, inasmuch as the self itself is capable of being externalized, subjugated, and exchanged, it, too, is treated in the same way.
This process, however, is essentially incoherent and self-destructive. In asserting its technological power, the self knows the objects of will and desire only as means to these appetites; in so doing, it negates their actual existence, and truly aims, not at them, but rather at itself. Yet when the actual existence and so goodness of the objects of desire and will are negated, so too are the appetites that aim at them. In willing and desiring in this way, then, the self wills and desires its own nonexistence.
In the truth, the good can only be received; that is, grasped and known as actually existing, as it is in itself. To receive the good, then, a real assimilation of the appetites to their object must take place. The will and desires must be ordered to their object, the real good existing in itself, and not vice versa; only thus are they capable of actually attaining it.
For this to take place, the self must, in a real and proper way, submit itself to the objects of its knowledge; that is, it must come to know and will all things as existing in themselves, prior to and above their existence as objects of its own will or desire. Or rather, the two operations must in a real way become one; each object must be willed precisely in its own real and proper existence and desired in precisely the same way: that is, to use the proper philosophical term, it must be loved. Only in this way can the self come to know anything as good--that is, as a true object of the will and desires. Only thus are the will and desires actually capable of fulfillment, and man himself capable of happiness.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Radical GKC

No modern writer or thinker has more directly impacted my life and my thinking than Gilbert Keith Chesterton. Of course, I am first and last and foremost a Catholic--and this means that I cannot and will not be subject to the narrow limits of any man's ideas, no matter how intelligent, wise, or holy. Still, it is to Chesterton that I owe, humanly speaking, this insight; for he was one of the primary human means by which the saving truths of the Gospel and the Catholic Faith were communicated to me, by the grace of God. Far from the only one--but certainly among the foremost. I call myself a Thomist--but in truth, my thinking is much Chestertonian as Scholastic. I have read a shocking amount of his shockingly large corpus, and continue to draw new spiritual and intellectual truths from it daily.
It is with this in mind, though, that I feel compelled to take a moment to lodge a protest to the use that Chesterton has been put to, and continues to be put to, in the world of modern American Christianity. The general adoption of Chesterton as a luminary of the modern American, ecumenical Christian Right has, to be sure, brought about much good--but it has also seriously deformed the public figure of the man, his thought, and his commitments. We are in great, even terrible danger of losing sight entirely of the real Chesterton--who he was, and what he stood for.
Chesterton was a famously friendly, humorous man, a man whose public enemies were also his private friends--so that, even in his lifetime, there was a general tendency to take him, as it were, as a light, rather foolish figure: a great fat man whose only message was the essential goodness of the universe and the importance of Christian tradition. This much, of course, is certainly true. The modern conservative vision of Chesterton, though, has if anything delivered a far more unforgiveable insult--turning Chesterton into a mere proponent of generic "common sense," an intellectual apologist for whatever variety of Christianity happens to suit one's fancy, a defender of the settled homes and lives of the American middle class. It was in this context that I first encountered Chesterton--and for that I am naturally grateful. Still, if this friendly, inoffensive Chesterton pleases us, it delivers an unforgiveable insult to the man himself.
Who was Chesterton? He was, from first to last, a political and social and religious radical, with enormous sympathies with revolutionaries of every sort. He was also, from first to last, a proponent of the essentially radical, revolutionary, and totalizing aspects of philosophy and religion.
Of course, the main thing that is usually forgotten about Chesterton is the simple fact that he was a journalist--and hence, first and foremost, a commentator on current events, and the social and political trends underlying them. In this, he was hardly ever anything but a rabble-rouser; a man who was not well understood by his contemporaries, not because he was too light and frivolous, but because he was too serious and direct.
The beginning of Chesterton's career as a public intellectual was the Boer War--in which Chesterton played the immensely unpopular role of radical anti-Imperialist agitator. This colonial war, fought for reasons of Imperial policy and economic interests, was immensely, indeed universally popular in England--and, for Chesterton, the object of a thoroughgoing and utterly uncompromising hatred. Chesterton first made a name for himself, not as a proponent of common sense and good fun, but as a young firebrand prone to attending Jingo rallies in order to shout taunts at their participants. His first public notoriety came from the fact that he had the nerve to oppose the British Empire at the very height of its success and universal popularity.
A brief quotation from one of poems gives his own view of this war, and its effect on his life, quite well:
"For so they conquered, and so we scattered,
When the Devil rode, and his dogs smelt Gold;
And the peace of a harmless folk was shattered,
When I was twenty and odd years old;
When the mongrel men the Market classes
Had slimy hands upon England's rod,
And sword in hand, upon Afric's passes,
Her last Republic cried to God."
In his Autobiography, Chesterton says that the Boer War was one of the turning points of his life--for when he realized he hated this war, hated it as he had never hated anything in his life, he was pushed to ask *why* he hated it, to unravel the strands of this most colonial and economic of wars, and develop further his own political and social philosophies. What he realized, gradually, is that what he hated about this war was simply what he hated about his entire society--its capitalism, its industrialism, its racialized Nationalism, its Imperialism, its expansive belief in progress, its lack of belief in God.
Already before this time, Chesterton had had his major spiritual and philosophical crisis, which resulted in his lifelong belief in the essential goodness of creation, and the constant necessity of humble, grateful appreciation of the world, oneself, and one's neighbor. Yet even this crisis was not purely individual; it was, in truth, a very direct intellectual battle with the prevailing philosophical pessimism of Schopenhauer, and a social and religious battle with the decadence of the fin de siecle. Chesterton's declarations of the goodness of things were very far from cries of placidity; they were, once again, cries of revolt. Throughout his life, indeed, Chesterton pursued his enemies on the philosophical field with as much aplomb as any Crusader.
This essential belief in the goodness of things, though, was far from a mere placid optimism--it was a belief found in battle, and founded, as Chesterton was later to say, not on the maximum of goodness, but on its purest minimum. It was also, in Chesterton's belief, the necessary precondition for any real revolution, reform, or progress. If the world was a disappointing, despairing waste, then nothing could be done but passively accept things as they were; but if God and being were, essentially, good, if man were, essentially, precious and miraculous--then this was a recipe, not for placidity, but revolution. If a precious nation were being absorbed by an Empire, it must be defended; if a precious family was being torn apart by divorce or sin, it must be saved; if a precious man were being crushed or starved by industrialism, he must be rescued. There was no time to waste.
The combination of these ideas can be seen at their purest, perhaps, in Chesterton's first novel, "The Napoleon of Notting Hill," written, by Chesterton's admission, in direct response to the events of the Boer War. This strange little parable, then, is from first to last concerned equally with the radical preciousness of existence--and an equally fiery anti-Imperialism.
A quotation from this novel--which is in most respects impossible to describe--will illustrate this well enough. In an early chapter, our main English characters encounter the exiled President of Nicarauga, whose nation has just been conquered by an assemblage of Imperalist powers (England, Germany, and America), who want to open Nicarauga to international commerce. A dialogue ensues:
" 'You need not hesitate in speaking to me,' he said. 'I am quite fully aware that the whole tendency of the world of to-day is against Nicaragua and against me. I shall not consider it any diminution of your evident courtesy if you say what you think of the misfortunes that have laid my republic in ruins.'
Barker looked immeasurably relieved and gratified.
'You are most generous, President,' he said, with some hesitation over the title, 'and I will take advantage of your generosity to express the doubts which, I must confess, we moderns have about such things as—er—the Nicaraguan independence.'
'So your sympathies are,' said Del Fuego, quite calmly, 'with the big nation which—'
'Pardon me, pardon me, President,' said Barker, warmly; 'my sympathies are with no nation. You misunderstand, I think, the modern intellect. We do not disapprove of the fire and extravagance of such commonwealths as yours only to become more extravagant on a larger scale. We do not condemn Nicaragua because we think Britain ought to be more Nicaraguan. We do not discourage small nationalities because we wish large nationalities to have all their smallness, all their uniformity of outlook, all their exaggeration of spirit. If I differ with the greatest respect from your Nicaraguan enthusiasm, it is not because a nation or ten nations were against you; it is because civilization was against you. We moderns believe in a great cosmopolitan civilization, one which shall include all the talents of all the absorbed peoples—'
'The Sẽnor will forgive me,' said the President. 'May I ask the Sẽnor how, under ordinary circumstances, he catches a wild horse?'
'I never catch a wild horse,' replied Barker, with dignity.
'Precisely,' said the other; 'and there ends your absorption of the talents. That is what I complain of your cosmopolitanism. When you say you want all peoples to unite, you really mean that you want all peoples to unite to learn the tricks of your people. If the Bedouin Arab does not know how to read, some English missionary or schoolmaster must be sent to teach him to read, but no one ever says, "This schoolmaster does not know how to ride on a camel; let us pay a Bedouin to teach him." You say your civilization will include all talents. Will it? Do you really mean to say that at the moment when the Esquimaux has learnt to vote for a County Council, you will have learnt to spear a walrus? I recur to the example I gave. In Nicaragua we had a way of catching wild horses—by lassoing the fore-feet—which was supposed to be the best in South America. If you are going to include all the talents, go and do it. If not, permit me to say what I have always said, that something went from the world when Nicaragua was civilized.'
'Something, perhaps,' replied Barker, 'but that something a mere barbarian dexterity. I do not know that I could chip flints as well as a primeval man, but I know that civilization can make these knives which are better, and I trust to civilization.'
'You have good authority,' answered the Nicaraguan. 'Many clever men like you have trusted to civilization. Many clever Babylonians, many clever Egyptians, many clever men at the end of Rome. Can you tell me, in a world that is flagrant with the failures of civilization, what there is particularly immortal about yours?' "
One of the chief morals of the novel, in fact, is precisely this anti-Imperialist and anti-Colonialist doctrine: because existence is precious, because each person and each people are precious, the mere brute dominance or absorption of many peoples by one is a shocking, revolting crime.
Of course, all this was to lead, in short order, to Chesterton's belief in Christianity--but even here (especially here!), his commitment was far from an light and easy matter. For, from first to last, Chesterton's commitment was not just to Christianity in the abstract, but to the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Church. Here some clarification is in order. Chesterton did not, in fact, convert to the Catholic Church for some decades: however, even during his time as an Anglican, he considered himself, as many Anglo-Catholics do, not an Anglican, but a Catholic. Even here, though, as he was later to say, he differed substantially from even most Anglo-Catholics; for while they were and are often interested in somehow "Catholicizing" the Church of England, he was interested only in finding and belonging to the Catholic Church. When he came to believe that the Anglo-Catholics were not, in fact, Catholics, he converted to the fullness of the Faith that he had already professed.
This is a somewhat longwinded way of saying that, once again, Chesterton's commitments were far from merely conservative--they were, indeed, revolutionary. Chesterton believed in Catholicism precisely as "the one fighting form of Christianity," the Church on earth tasked with shaping and informing every aspect of society with justice and divine truth. His idea of religion was not merely private or personal, but radically public, social, and even political: "A man can no more have a private religion than he can have a private Sun and Moon."
In this, he was doubly a rebel in an anti-Catholic England where Catholics, especially Catholic converts, were still viewed with suspicion and mistrust. Far from rejecting that controversy, though, Chesterton embraced it; and in his examination of history, he came more and more to see the roots of all the evils he had opposed in the rejection, first by Protestantism, and later by secular commercialism, of the great truths of the Catholic Faith. In Catholicism, too, he found a true justification for the essential goodness and preciousness of existence--a true Internationalism without Imperialism--a social teaching capable of giving true justice to the nations--and most importantly, of course, humility, repentance, the forgiveness of sins, and the reality of divine love.
All of this was, of course, to fundamentally shape his work over the course of his life--first and foremost, of course, his journalistic work, commentating, day in and day out, on the events of his time, engaging in public controversy, giving lectures, and fighting day in and day out for what he held to be the truth.
In this regard, mention should be made of what was perhaps the great work of his life, which defined and indeed consumed its last decades, taking up most of his time and enormous amounts of his own money: the founding and running of his own weekly paper, GK's Weekly, and the concurrent founding and promotion of the Distributist League. These were closely allied tasks.
For this, too, was one of the main things for which Chesterton, at every stage of his life, stood: the complete destruction and dissolution of industrial capitalism. At first, this took the form of the rather conventional Fabian socialism of his time--but rapidly, under the influence of his friend Hilaire Belloc, Pope Leo XIII, and the great Father Vincent McNabb, this anti-capitalism was sharpened and defined into the positive cause of Distributism. This was, certainly, a radical enough cause: the massive division and redistribution of the means of production from the rich to the masses. It was this, more than anything else, that consumed his energies in his last years.
As for the industrial capitalist order itself, Chesterton had nothing but contempt for it--in his view, it was was chiefly responsible for the godless Imperialism of his lifetime, the bitter oppression of the poor by the rich, the growth of promiscuity and sexual immorality, and the destruction of the chief institution of human society: the family. In one of his weekly columns, he bitterly complained that even the godless tyranny of Soviet Communism seemed preferable, for him, to slowly watching human society dissolved and corrupted by the triumphant forces of unbridled greed, lust, and pride.
When Naziism arrived on the scene, in the last years of his life, Chesterton saw it as the culmination of all that he had come to hate in his lifetime, and in his own society: the racial Imperialism of the Boer Wars, the anti-Catholicism of No Popery, the regimentation and impersonality of industrial society. In Nazi racism, especially, Chesterton saw a truly spiritual threat: racism was nothing other than the deification of pride, the complete rejection of the humble gratitude for life that he had come to believe in as a young man. Here there was no room for compromise: war with the Nazis, he argued again and again, was simply an inevitability. This was indeed to come, though he was not to be alive to see it.
For most of his life, then, Chesterton was something of a rejected prophet; his beliefs and causes regarded as backwards trifles, even if he himself was still appreciated as a humorous and beloved character of public life.
When Chesterton died, in 1936, the world was very far from embracing his ideals or his commitments; nor is it now. Still, his Distributism did find many converts in his day, including, most notably, the great and saintly Dorothy Day. In the end, these ideas, and those of the Papal Social Teaching on which they were based, did play an important role in shaping the post-War world. Of course, this world was to be shaped even more by the economic and cultural dominance of America--and here, Chesterton was far less enthusiastic. In his last years, seeing this dominance start to shape itself, Chesterton commented that, while he still despised all Imperialism, he certainly preferred an Imperialism like that of England's, founded on courage in arms, to an Imperialism such as America's, founded on economic dominance of the world.
Still, in the end, Chesterton was not a cause, but a man; and what he believed in, most of all, was not his own ideas or causes, but rather the Catholic Church herself. When he died, it was with the same faith in the essential goodness of God, and the preciousness of the world, that he had had from the beginning; a faith supported, and increased beyond all measure, by the Cross of Christ.
Among his last words were the repeated injunction: "The matter is now clear; it is between light and darkness, and everyone must choose his side." This, more than anything else, is what Chesterton stood for; and this is very far from easy comfort.
All of this is, of course, only a tiny sliver of the thought of a great man whose mind was infinitely larger than his body. It does, though, pick out in relief details that are often, in our day and age, overlooked and forgotten.