Thursday, October 13, 2016

Worries about Chesterton

This is a 'book review' I wrote in 2011 for the now-defunct 'Faith in the Home'. Chesterton's influence in the Church continues and I thought it would be good to put this out there somewhere.

‘Orthodoxy’ by G.K. Chesterton (first published 1908; Baronius Press edition, 2006) pp181 
Review by Joseph Shaw

It’s not often I review a book which has been published for more than a century, but at this time of rising Chestertonian revivalism, with Chesterton studies, Chesterton institutes, and reprints and references constantly appearing, it is as well to take stock of what is going on on planet ‘GCK’. Contrary to my own expectations, I am not very enthusiastic about what I see. Rather than trying to give a balanced assessment of GKC’s overall work, which would be a monumental task, let me list some of my misgivings, based on this one work.


As GKC himself notes, this is not a conventional work of apologetics (p160), although it is frequently described as one. Rather, it is an account of his own philosophy, by way of the considerations giving rise to it. Along the way various prejudices and arguments against Christianity are addressed, but the only positive reasons given for belief are either personal or social: that Christianity fits neatly into his own Romantic imagination, or that widespread belief in it is better for society, particularly in promoting the interests of the downtrodden. These are not, of course, reasons for believing that Christianity is actually true; they are simply reasons for wishing it were true (or being glad that it is). The view that one ought to believe what it would be useful to believe is Pragmatism, and that of course is totally opposed to the objective view of truth at the heart of Orthodox Christianity. Does GKC realise that there is a problem here? There is no indication that he does. So this is the start of my worries about GKC.

My second major problem is GKC’s enthusiasm for democracy. He is a great supporter of democracy, because he believes in the wisdom of the ‘ordinary’ man. He tells us, however, ‘there is one thing I have never from my youth been able to understand. I have never been able to understand where people got the idea that democracy was in some way opposed to tradition.’ (p47) As I read the passages in the book on this topic I began to realise that GKC is being perfectly honest: one of the biggest, most influential, and most dangerous currents of thought for the previous two centuries is something he just fails to understand.

My dear GKC, if you were alive I could easily enlighten you. As to ‘where’ the idea comes from the locus classicus is J-J Rousseau, and it works like this. Whereas most Europeans up to the 17th Century were governed day to day by laws and institutions which represented the continuation of immemorial traditions, such as marriage and property, laws forbidding theft and incest, and processes of conflict resolution, Rousseau called these ‘chains’, and thought that we could all be ‘free’ if we followed the dictates of pure reason. Since all men have a rational faculty, this could be done by a system in which everyone could vote for startling new laws and institutions, and throw off the shackles of the old. These votes would of course be unanimous, because pure reason would always come to the same conclusions, and we could all bask in the knowledge that each law was in accordance with our personal will, and not, like the old traditions, imposed from without.  The only exception would be if some people’s reason was impeded by selfishness; they would need the guidance of the more enlightened citizens.

This is simply a secular political version of the Protestant rejection of tradition in religion. Luther said that each man could get the truth directly from God, via the pages of Scripture. Everyone, consulting Scripture, would naturally agree, since Scripture is an infallible presentation of Divine Revelation, unless they were impeded by moral turpitude; given the danger of turpitude getting in the way, people needed to be led by a cadre of properly drilled Lutheran ministers. The great thing was that either way they would get the truth direct, or nearly direct, from source, and all those complicated traditions, which come between the Christian and the source of all religious truth, could be thrown away.

Is it really possible that GKC didn't understand this argument? His failure to understand it would explain not only his remarks about democracy, but the strange soft spot he harboured for the French Revolution, which was directly inspired by Rousseau’s ideas. There may be some connection with the tribal allegiance he had towards the Whig party. Be that as it may, while democratic institutions are not necessarily Rousseauist, GKC’s failure to understand the origin and drift of the democratic ideology as Rousseau had formed it unfits him as a commentator on a wide range of topics. What you don't understand you cannot, effectively, oppose.

My third major problem is this. A major part of GKC’s Romantic imagination, which attracted him to Christianity, was his ‘wonder’ at created things. This is often brought up in treatments of GCK’s thought, and Orthodoxy has extended discussions of it. GKC repeatedly says, against scientific rationalism, that things could easily have been different, and that really it is quite miraculous that even quite ordinary things around us exist as they do. He applies this general view both to physics, saying that it is astonishing that the sun should rise each morning, and only does so thanks to God, and also to morality, saying that the basic principles of human action could so easily have been completely different (in a chapter appropriately title ‘The Ethics of Elfland’).

It tells us a lot about the state of Catholic education in the 20th Century that this attitude of GKC has apparently never troubled his Catholic supporters—either of his own day or of ours. GKC’s view here is based, whether he realises it or not, on the twin Protestant principles (usually regarded as rather extreme, on the scale of Protestantism) of Occasionalism (the heat from the fire may be the occasion for the bread toasting, but really it is God making it toast), and Divine Command Ethics (the obligation not to kill doesn’t follow from the objective moral importance of human life, but merely from the fact that God has chosen to forbid killing). These views were established in conscious opposition to the thought of St Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, and the Aristotelian tradition which he incorporated into Catholic thought, holds that while God can certainly intervene miraculously into the physical world, and can certainly create new obligations for us by issuing commands, there is nevertheless such a thing as a ‘law of nature’, in physics and morality alike. This gives us, in the natural world, the important distinction between the natural and the miraculous, and in morality between Natural Law and Divine Law. Both distinctions seem to have disappeared in GKC.

I have given three examples of GKC being apparently influenced by anti-Christian or specifically anti-Catholic currents of thought, apparently without his knowledge or comprehension. He does not necessarily endorse these ideas; if they were laid out clearly, it is probable that he would reject them. The problem is that he doesn’t see them, and their influence on the general thought of the 20th Century, clearly. His work embeds them, and in that way promotes and perpetuates them. In this way he is similar to many popular writers of course, and this is partly why popular writers have to be treated with caution, and tend not to have long-term influence.

My conclusion is that the great enthusiasm for Chesterton to be found among Catholics today is troubling. He obviously has his virtues, otherwise he would not be as popular as he is; he has lots of good things to say, and says them in a highly engaging way. I am myself a great fan of his poetry and the Fr Brown books; he often seems to get to the heart of the matter. But at the end of the day GKC is not a profound thinker, and worse than that he does not have reliably Catholic instincts.

‘Orthodoxy’ was, in fact, written long before he became a Catholic, but it is constantly reiterated that despite this is it is Catholic in spirit. No, it is not: its spirit can be identified as combining Romanticism, Evangelical Protestantism, and political Liberalism. The Romanticism brings the reverence for tradition. The Evangelical Protestantism brings the awe-struck attitude towards God and Creation. The political Liberalism brings a concern for the poor. In these respects these things have affinities in Catholicism, but that doesn’t make them Catholic, even in combination. On the contrary, they make GKC vulnerable to some of the most dangerous trends in modern thought: Romanticism encourages Pragmatism, an attitude of wishful thinking which even Evangelical Protestants usually reject. Evangelical Protestantism brings in Occasionalism and Divine Command Ethics, an attitude of anti-rationalism which even Political Liberals usually reject. And Political Liberalism brings in a democratic ideology which undermines the very respect for Tradition fostered by Romanticism. GKC has not purified his respect for tradition of wishful thinking, he has not purified his wonder and gratitude for creation of anti-rationalism, and he has not purified his concern for the poor of the democratic ideology. Catholics, by contrast, must do these things.


5 comments:

Colin Kerr said...

Hi Joseph,

A friend put me on to this post of yours because I am using Orthodoxy in a class I am teaching, basically Great Books in the Catholic Intellectual Tradition from the 17th century to today.

Everything you said here is a worthwhile concern, but I must disagree with you, or at least disagree that these are serious flaws in Chesterton, because of two things:

1) this is a work of apologetics, not as much as it is a commentary on the Creed, even though he does acknowledge that the Creed is his starting point.

2) as apologetics, it is directed against certain tendencies in his own culture that he thinks are deleterious and that he wants to dissuade people from.

You and I both know that he was an astute observer of the philosophical tendencies of his time. He was directing his exposition (his sales pitch, his reconsideration) of the Faith against materialists, against scientism, most of all. In this light we can say that he was making the case that it is okay, and even healthy and good, to acknowledge that there are important dimensions of life outside of the merely empirical. I don't take him to be trying to accomplish much more than that.

What you say about democracy, etc., is all true in the literal sense, but I think you have to acknowledge the basic point he is trying to make: that God directly, and indirectly through the world, has given us a law to which we can become privy, that we don't have to superimpose a theoretical and unnatural doctrine (probably Marxism, which sought to dispense with the family, and everything else good in nature) upon human culture in order to save it from itself.

In the end, he is not trying to close all the loopholes of Christianity, but to make a basic case for its reconsideration, which is what he realized he had to do.

Thanks for making me think about these things.

As it is I am quite happy that I chose Orthodoxy for my rather uninitiated students. It is a great bridging point between extreme secularism and Orthodoxy.

Joseph Shaw said...

Well I'm glad I've give you something to think about. If there is anything to my criticisms, Chesterton's bridge doesn't lead to the Faith, but to something else.

David McPike said...

Colin,
Your comment makes me think of MacIntyre's account of emotivism in After Virtue. According to MacIntyre, the theory of emotivism was a reaction to the (plainly false) non-natural moral intuitionism of G.E. Moore; but the emotivists, because of their historical ignorance, thought that their reaction to "moral utterance at [Moore's] Cambridge" actually constituted a reaction to "moral utterance as such." So in a way, emotivism was an understandable response to the "great silliness" of G.E. Moore and his followers. But if the emotivists can be applauded for seeing the falseness of Moore's theory, it remains that their own alternative theory was just as (or even more) obviously false. It failed to get to the real root of Moore's error. Moore's false theory called for a response, but the emotivist response was a dead-end, another false, unenlightening theory, rather than a bridge to truth (orthodoxy, Christian faith, or whatever). So the question is whether some of GKC's responses to certain problems are genuine bridges to better understanding or rather dead-ends, failures to understand the roots of certain typical modern errors.

Colin Kerr said...

With the hope that we are not trying Joseph's patience, let me add that since the matter seems now to be one of "proof is in the pudding," I have little hesitance to say that, since this work of Chesterton's was singularly influential in bringing people to Christ a century ago, including none other than the most influential C.S. Lewis, Chesterton's methodology seems to be vindicated thereby. Now, since people have grown dumber since his time, it may have now outlived its usefulness... but that is another argument.

Joseph Shaw said...

That's a truly terrible argument.

C.S. Lewis acknowledged the positive influence heterodox writers like the Universalist, George McDonald, had on him when he was an atheist; that doesn't mean they weren't heterodox. Thomas Merton was drawn towards the Faith by James Joyce's depiction of Catholic culture. Arnold Lunn's materialism was shaken by the Idealism of Prof Huxley ('Darwin's Bulldog').

It all depends on where you are starting from.