Monthly Archives: March 2013

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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Photograph of Conrad of Bavaria, circa 1910-1915

Conny’s lampshade hat lit up orange whenever he had a bright idea.

Conrad of Bavaria, ca.1910-1915. Library of Congress.

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Three Paragraphs of Misadventure

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste. The wife accused me of tossing out the leftovers when I’d cleaned the kitchen the other night. They’re in the fridge, I said, you just haven’t looked hard enough. But no, they were not in the fridge. Impossible, I said, I remember very clearly taking the glass container from the cupboard, putting the rest of the curried chicken inside, sealing it closed …and putting it right back into the cupboard again, where, thank God, it’s still safe.

What Dreams May Come, Barefoot and in a Bathrobe. It was a chilly morning. On the platform below, just as my commuter train was pulling away, I saw a man in a plaid bathrobe. He was maybe fifty years old, graying, barefoot, but otherwise well-groomed. He didn’t appear to be homeless. He walked ten quick paces, stopped, and lifted up the hem of his robe. He reached down toward his wiggling toes in slow-motion disbelief. Only then did he realize it wasn’t a dream.

Vengeance is Mine, Saith the Squid. I was eating lunch at the local Japanese ramen shop, lifting a spoonful of precious broth to my lips. Just then, from the next room, came a colossal crash. Someone had dropped a bank safe, a quarter-ton barbell, or the frozen corpse of a rhino, and the whole room shook. The broth, in which drops of squid ink were suspended, splattered across my shirt. From beyond the grave, the bitter cephalopod had taken its revenge.


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Marginalia, no.290

The abnormal expression of mirth is shown in clownishness, levity, and caricaturing of persons… When excessive it can be restrained by devoting more time to serious and practical principles of science. If deficient it can be cultivated through the study of wit and humor.

~ John T. Miller, Applied Character Analysis

The arch-phrenologist Johann Spurzheim located mirthfulness in a particular corner of the forehead where, he said, Voltaire, Rabelais and Sterne each showed a considerable bulge. It’s a little known fact that all three were solemn and severe children who only developed a sense of humor after years of study.

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Healthy Animal Insensibility

“I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight and welcome.” William James, on the infamous morning of April 18, 1906, woke to a real earthquake, his first. He was visiting Stanford University, thirty miles below San Francisco. A number of the brick dormitories and other campus buildings collapsed, though James was unharmed. Fascinated, he traveled into the city where he spent all day touring the rubble and watching the progress of the fire.

James was impressed by the general lack of histrionics. Survivors survived and made little fuss about it. The dead made no fuss at all. What particularly interested him was the strange vigor and excitement that he – and so many others – reported feeling. It was out of place, but undeniable. “Mental pathos and anguish, I fancy, are usually effects of distance,” he wrote. “At the place of action, where all are concerned together, healthy animal insensibility and heartiness take their place.”

Three hundred and some years earlier, Michel de Montaigne was nearly killed in a riding accident. He was knocked to the ground, delirious and vomiting blood. His companions were horrified at his apparent suffering, but Montaigne himself experienced the moment quite differently. Though he expected to die, he was in a state near ecstasy. “It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go.”

“I believe,” he says, “that this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting with weakness in the agony of death, and I maintain that we pity them without cause.” Our pity of the dying, Montaigne suggests, is an effect of distance similar to what James describes. To move from health to the worst extremities of disease and injury seems, from where we stand, a horrible traverse. But the conclusions we draw from our perception of the moment may not correspond at all to the inward experience of the sufferer. (It would be nice to believe this.)

There are, of course, various philosophical approaches to suffering. One is to suggest that suffering is the basic condition of existence and the lack of it only a brief anomaly. Another is to see in suffering something which may contribute toward a higher good, in this world or the next. Yet another is to deny that suffering is real at all. It’s tempting, but wrong, to read this last view into James and Montaigne. They don’t mean to suggest that suffering is illusion, only that we are wrong to imagine we always understand or recognize it.

Human beings have no monopoly on suffering and death. All living things die, and most, it seems, are capable of suffering to one degree or another. How many trillions of creatures were starved, maimed, crushed, tortured, devoured, or killed by disease before our ancestors ever came down from the trees? Some people find the idea of a life founded on these conditions intolerable and so they choose to believe in a primordial state without disease or violence, and a historic fall from that condition to our present one. They feel that suffering and death prove a sort of satanic disruption in the cosmos.

If there is a mystery to suffering, we’re not likely to solve it. Part of what James, at least, seems to have experienced, was the thrill of survival. I felt it myself in the first days after a car accident in which I was knocked unconscious and for an hour or two lost my memory. Even when we do not personally survive, however, survival is the universal rule. The world continues without us, and the life that we shared in for our portion of eternity is practically indestructible. I draw no conclusions, but this may provide a handle by which to turn the problem around in curious ways. In a passage from Walden Thoreau almost exonerates a murderous universe:

“I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp, – tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood! With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal.”

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Marginalia, no.289

In the coming century phrenology will assuredly attain general acceptance. It will prove itself to be the true science of mind. Its practical uses in education, in self-discipline, in the reform treatment of criminals and in the medical treatment of the insane will give it one of the highest places in the hierarchy of the sciences; and its persistent neglect and obloquy during the last sixty years will be referred to as an example of the most inconceivable narrowness and prejudice…

~ Alfred Russel Wallace

If it didn’t require us for its survival, science would do just fine. Instead, it’s like a telescope mounted on top of a swaying tree. There’s something almost endearing in how easily we admit the errors of former times while insisting on our own enlightened certainties. We like to mistake the advancement of science and technology for moral progress. The first inventor of the wheel probably thought he could never be wrong about anything ever again.

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Cigarette trading card from 1887

It shocked Albert to learn that, in fact, most people did not see any spots at all.

Allen and Ginter Co. cigarette trading card depicting Albert Frey (billiards) for the World’s Champions series (1887).

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