Reading Notes: G.K. Chesterton and John Gray

In his biography of Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton has only a few things to say about the “Dumb Ox” himself, but that’s the way it is with all his books: the ostensible subject is most of the time fondly neglected for the atmosphere surrounding it. From most writers this would be intolerable, but from Chesterton, somehow, it’s better than tolerable, because almost no one else is so fun to read. Chesterton’s Aquinas is no vague hypothesizer of miniature angels traipsing about in Nana’s sewing kit, but the champion of common sense philosophy, out to rescue medieval Christendom from the slow creep of Platonism, and to return it – with some help from Aristotle – to an affirmation of the reality and value of the material order, and a reasonable sense of our place within it.

Regarding our place within it, Aquinas – and Chesterton – insist that we are at home; that the material order is no catastrophe but essential to human beatitude; that a ghost is no more a complete man than a corpse is; that the senses are windows through which we perceive an actual world beyond, and into which light shines to show us ourselves; that the will is free; that we are kindred to other animals while at the same time elevated by intellect; that human reason has “a divine right to feed upon facts.” My grasp on medieval philosophy is weak, but I know that Chesterton is simplifying things. I also know that the compellingly baited lures of our own “age of uncommon nonsense” (Chesterton’s phrase) are sometimes difficult not to swallow. But I’ll happily take this antique sanity over the sort peddled today by persons like John Gray in Straw Dogs.

*

Both Plutarch in the Moralia and Montaigne in The Apology for Raymond Sebond argue that animals are more human than we imagine. John Gray, however, wants us to know that humans are no different from animals at all. These are two very different things to say. The first grants that certain traits we might have imagined belonged only on our side of the fence are actually present on both sides. The second claims that there is no fence at all and that you are the physical, intellectual and moral equivalent of a bacterium.

Gray’s arch-materialist philosophy is the same, I gather, as that popularized by Daniel Dennett and his ilk. According to this view, your sense of self is illusion, your notion of what constitutes just or ethical behavior is imaginary, your every action is absolutely determined, and all that you think you know about reality – relying on common sense – is false in almost every detail. There’s some buzz these days about Thomas Nagel’s attack on this arch-materialism in his recent book Mind and Cosmos, which I have not read and am not qualified to comment on, but Andrew Ferguson’s recent piece for The Weekly Standard gives a summary.

Whatever your personal take on the issue, it’s hard to avoid the sense while reading Straw Dogs that Gray is slowly dismantling his own argument without realizing it. For example, after assuring us of our utter unexceptionality compared to other animals, he goes on to admit at least three exceptions. Per Gray, human beings do, in fact, differ from animals in possessing a sense of selfhood (and hence an understanding of death), in the complex conflicts of their interests, and in their means of employing language.

I’m less sure of these particular points of divergence than Gray is, actually. I’ve known animals with what seemed remarkable notions of their own selfhood – and I could trot out a half-dozen anecdotes suggesting that certain animals, at least, do have a notion of what death means for an individual. But in my opinion, despite the obvious fact of our basic commonalities with other animals, there comes a point – in the degree and use of intelligence, for example, or in the control of nature, or in the capacity for empathy, etc. – where even differences that might be characterized as quantitative add up, in effect, to qualitative differences. No bacterium will ever write a book arguing that bacteria are essentially equivalent to human beings. The fact that Mr Gray’s book exists seems to contradict its own premise.

His strict determinism I find equally unconvincing. According to Gray, determinism extends into the realm of the intellect. There is no free play of mind. People are no more responsible for their perspectives or beliefs than they are culpable for their actions. If this is so, of course, then there’s no point arguing. There’s no point trying to convince anyone to change his mind about anything, and Gray himself can take no credit for his own accidental illumination. Nonetheless, I insist that I can choose to punch a stranger in the face or not. I can likewise choose to endorse Gray’s notion of determinism or not, and the choice I make will have consequences. It will inform my view of life, my interactions with others, my own behaviors and choices. If this is so – if I can freely make even small and relatively inconsequential adjustments in my perspectives or ideas, and if these changes can change me in ways that I would not have changed otherwise – then strict determinism is false.

*

I do give Gray points for his critique of the supernaturalism implicit in popular forms of naturalism today, by which I mean the tendency among certain materialists to pretend that the natural world is a closed system outside of which human beings operate almost as if they were themselves gods. “Cities,” Gray counters, “are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider’s web.” Per Montaigne, nothing can be anything but according to nature. However, the lesson for Gray should be to amplify his sense of what nature is – to broaden it to encompass personhood, intellect, moral responsibility, love – rather than to reduce his estimate of man.

In the end there’s something cynical and false in Gray’s posturing as he steps down from the mountain to address the human animals that crowd non-volitionally around him: “You don’t want to hear it, dear species,” he seems to say, “but the sad truth is that no one – absolutely no one – got it right except for Schopenhauer, and of course me….” Chesterton, referring to the John Grays of his own day (1933) writes: “No sceptics work sceptically; no fatalists work fatalistically; all without exception work on the principle that it is possible to assume what it is not possible to believe. No materialist who thinks his mind was made up for him, by mud and blood and heredity, has any hesitation in making up his mind.”

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3 responses to “Reading Notes: G.K. Chesterton and John Gray

  1. Hello Ian,

    Very thoughtful, as always. I should get round to Chesterton’s Aquinas one of these days. For that matter, I should get round to Chesterton, and not only because Frost once lived in his neighborhood outside London (Beaconsfield).

    I would offer an objection to one point you make. I mean this: “Both Plutarch in the Moralia and Montaigne in The Apology for Raymond Sebond argue that animals are more human than we imagine. John Gray, however, wants us to know that humans are no different from animals at all. These are two very different things to say. The first grants that certain traits we might have imagined belonged only on our side of the fence are actually present on both sides. The second claims that there is no fence at all and that you are the physical, intellectual and moral equivalent of a bacterium. Gray’s arch-materialist philosophy is the same, I gather, as that popularized by Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins and their ilk. According to this view, your sense of self is illusion, your notion of what constitutes just or ethical behavior is imaginary, your every action is absolutely determined, and all that you think you know about reality – relying on common sense – is false in almost every detail.”

    I find this hard to square with Dennett and Dawkins, at least as I’ve come to know them. As for that fence coming down between us and bacteria, and as for our being their moral equivalent: this is not a position Dawkins (anyway) would ever take. He simply re-describes the fence, leaving it very much in place. Are men and women (is homo sapiens sapiens) qualitatively different from other organisms? Why, yes, of course. We are indeed “alone,” Dawkins would say. But I’ll let him say it. The following remarks fall toward the end of “The Selfish Gene,” an oft-misunderstood book, which is by no means determinist, in the dispiriting sense of the word. Dawkins has just been discussing, in an entirely thought-experimental way, “memes” (this is where the meme “meme” started its career): “It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity 
for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other, nor to speculate over its possible memic evolution. The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight—our capacity to 
simulate the future in imagination—could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a ‘conspiracy of doves,’ and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism—something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”

    I think that leaves the fence between us and other animals firmly in place (while nonetheless affirming the unity of our origin).

    Dawkins speaks of “yet another unique quality of man.” He says that “we, alone on earth,” have the ability, and therefore the responsibility, to take up the task of determining what piece of work “mankind” shall be, and in fact what kind of world mankind shall inhabit.

    In us evolution by natural selection has stumbled on something that may set itself against a world governed by Darwinian algorithms. Consciousness, the “capacity to 
simulate the future in imagination,” and so on: all of this allows us not simply better to understand how we (and other animals) came to be. “Imagination” and “consciousness” mandate that any desirable social arrangement must be very different indeed from what “nature” alone, without the superaddition of “imagination,” would allow for.

    So, it strikes me that Dawkins would say, “Hear, hear!” to your remarks: “There comes a point – in the degree and use of intelligence, for example, or in the control of nature, or in the capacity for empathy, etc. – where even differences that might be characterized as quantitative add up, in effect, to qualitative differences.”

    Yes: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.” And one way to do this is by writing books such as “The Selfish Gene,” the political implications of which are liberal and profoundly democratic. Not having read Gray’s “Straw Dogs,” I can’t say whether that book lends itself to the uses Dawkins has in mind, such as entering into a conspiracy of doves. But what I’ve read of Dawkins and Dennett shows me that their books do. This is what accounts, in part, for the guardedly sunny outlook, the optative mood, and the pragmatism (in the Deweyan & Rorty-esque sense of the word), one so often finds in Dawkins and Dennett. This is what allows Rorty (to take a step further) to embrace the positions of radical Darwinism, and, from them, re-describe philosophy as a mode of “social hope.”

    So we both are and are not merely animals, at least if I understand Dawkins and others of his party. I don’t know whether that’s a Chestertonian sort of paradox (it certainly lacks his wit). I doubt it is a paradox at all.

    I suppose all I am attempting to do is say what Frost says so much more elegantly in his “Letter” to “The Amherst Student” (1935): “There is at least so much good in the world that it admits of form and the making of form. And not only admits of it, but calls for it. We people are thrust forward out of the suggestions of form in the rolling clouds of nature. In us nature reaches its height of form and through us exceeds itself.” If I’ve understood Dawkins as he wishes to be understood, that is essentially what he means (though he would be wary of the word “height”): “In us nature reaches its height of form and through us exceeds itself.” That “excession” (so to speak) is what tosses us on the other side of the fence from “nature,” strictly understood. That “excession” is what makes mankind not a “natural” animal only but a “cultural” one also––an animal that writes its own history, and imagines its possible futures (in poetry & in politics).

    All of which brings to mind another remark Dawkins makes, this time in “The Devil’s Chaplin.” He is at great pains, he says, to apprise his readers always that he studies Darwinian theory as an oncologist studies cancer: not to advocate its outcomes, but to thwart them (at least insofar as our social arrangements are concerned).

    Well. Thank you, Ian. Very engaging, as ever. Good way to start my day. I woke up glum and a bit hungover. Now I am neither.

    • Ian Wolcott

      Thank you, Mark, for the great reply. I’m sorry it took me so long to approve your comment. WordPress has been acting up lately (at least for me) and I honestly didn’t see your pending comment until today. If I’d seen it earlier, I would, of course, have approved it right away.

      I appreciate the correction on Dawkins. I was apparently lumping together when I shouldn’t have been. In fact, I haven’t read much Dawkins. Hence the “I gather” in my wording; I was taking someone else’s word for it, when I ought to have been more cautious.

      I hope you and yours are well, by the way. Does the North Korean sabre-rattling get much coverage where you are? I would assume it must. Didn’t his father once fire a missile over Japan? What a ridiculous world sometimes.

  2. Totally with you on this one!

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