G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy

Last year, I read G.K. Chesterton’s book Heretics, and just got around to reading the follow-up, Orthodoxy. The earlier volume focuses on criticising modern ideas, essentially “bursting the bubbles of ‘clever sillies,'” as I put it in my last review. Here, he attempts to state his own philosophy in positive terms, and most of the book goes through various ideas that lead him to become a Christian. This isn’t in the form of a Catechism or series of logical proofs like the Summa Theologica or De Romano Pontifice, though. Rather, it’s more of a series of loosely connected observations. As he says, I think accurately, “the evidence in my case… is not really in this or that alleged demonstration; it is in an enormous accumulation of small but unanimous facts… a man may well be less convinced of a philosophy from four books, than from one book, one battle, one landscape, and one old friend. The very fact that the things are of different kinds increases the importance of the fact that they all point to one conclusion.” In other words, people aren’t convinced of something because of a powerful proof, but because a number of seemingly disparate observations all point in the same direction.

Unfortunately, though there is some very good material here, it’s a weaker volume than its predecessor. Most of the book is fine, of course, but applying common sense to modern “heresies” is easier than building up a positive case, and the latter requires a more rigorous, traditional sort of approach to philosophy, which isn’t Chesterton’s strong suit. As a result, though the book is still well worth reading, there are a few major arguments that are surprisingly weak.

Let’s start with some of the strong points. Those on the Right today will likely have seen the argument that Progressivism is, in a sense, a “Christian heresy,” and Chesterton makes a broadly similar point about modernity:

The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone… For example, Mr. Blatchford attacks Christianity because he is mad on one Christian virtue: the merely mystical and almost irrational virtue of charity. He has a strange idea that he will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive. Mr. Blatchford is not only an early Christian, he is the only early Christian who ought really to have been eaten by lions. For in his case the pagan accusation is really true: his mercy would mean mere anarchy. He really is the enemy of the human race— because he is so human.

I’m not sure who Mr. Blatchford is, due to Chesterton’s understandable but annoying habit of not explaining his references, but one senses that he was on the farthest end of a contemporary holiness spiral. Progressives are certainly anti-Christian, as they often claim to be, but Chesterton is correct in this early observation that they attempt to be “holier than Jesus,” so to speak, and try to take certain Christian virtues without the underlying reason behind them. It may be an interesting research project to see who was the first to make this connection between Progressivism or Liberalism and Christianity, but Chesterton is the first that I’m aware of.

Speaking of early observations of modern trends, Chesterton also noticed that Liberals like to appeal to The Current Year as if it’s a decisive argument. He writes, “An imbecile habit has arisen in modern controversy of saying that such and such a creed can be held in one age but cannot be held in another.” He then makes the obvious point that a dogma is either true or it is not, regardless of what the calendar says. Just because one idea is newer than another or even arose from another does not mean that it has meaningfully progressed, in the sense of improved, in any way. As he says in a later discussion, in a comparison to Darwinian evolution, some men “think that so long as they were passing from the ape they were going to the angel. But you can pass from the ape and go to the devil.”

All good so far, and becoming of the Apostle of Common Sense. Then, we get this discussion:

This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common… The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe)… is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves— the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state.

No.

The affairs of state are absolutely something I “do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well.” The issues involved in political office are complex, and is certainly an example of “skilled labour,” making politics more analogous to playing the church organ than blowing one’s nose. This seems obvious to me, but institutionalised amateurism is so popular among Americans and, it seems, men like Chesterton, that perhaps it is not as obvious as it seems. In fact, it seems like one of those silly but common misconceptions that Chesterton himself would have cut through, but he gets carried away by his romanticising the common man and misses this point entirely.

Now, a discussion of the problems of democracy is well outside the scope of this post, but thinking about democracy as I do also made me rethink one of Chesterton’s most famous lines, given a bit after the previous passage, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.”

Tradition as “the democracy of the dead” is a striking image, and is one that I liked for a long time. Thinking about it more deeply, though, I’m not sure that it’s a valid analogy. I certainly esteem the opinions of past generations, but I don’t give a “vote” to just anyone who happens to be dead any more than I give a “vote” to anyone who happens to be alive. Even in simple, adaptive matters, like the tradition of not running with scissors, I won’t grant universal suffrage because some have doubtless joined the democracy of the dead by voting for the losing side of that proposition. If we’re talking about greater matters like the traditions of following Christian dogma, then I’m certainly only concerned with the opinions of those, living or dead, with some expertise on the issue.

Perhaps, then, “aristocracy of the dead” is a better analogy for tradition.

Finally, I realise that this post is very quote-heavy already, but I would like to end with Chesterton’s observation on the romance of orthodoxy, because it’s one of the best passages of non-fiction he ever wrote. I remember reading this back in high school as an excerpt, and it’s affected how I think of orthodoxy and fashionable heresies ever since:

This is the thrilling romance of Orthodoxy. People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy. It was sanity: and to be sane is more dramatic than to be mad. It was the equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, seeming to stoop this way and to sway that, yet in every attitude having the grace of statuary and the accuracy of arithmetic. The Church in its early days went fierce and fast with any warhorse; yet it is utterly unhistoric to say that she merely went mad along one idea, like a vulgar fanaticism. She swerved to left and right, so as exactly to avoid enormous obstacles. She left on one hand the huge bulk of Arianism, buttressed by all the worldly powers to make Christianity too worldly. The next instant she was swerving to avoid an orientalism, which would have made it too unworldly. The orthodox Church never took the tame course or accepted the conventions; the orthodox Church was never respectable. It would have been easier to have accepted the earthly power of the Arians. It would have been easy, in the Calvinistic seventeenth century, to fall into the bottomless pit of predestination. It is easy to be a madman: it is easy to be a heretic. It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own. It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob. To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom— that would indeed have been simple. It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.

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