Tag Archives: G.K. Chesterton

Marginalia, no.316

His soul will never starve for exploits or excitements who is wise enough to be made a fool of. He will make himself happy in the traps that have been laid for him; he will roll in their nets and sleep. All doors will fly open to him… [He] will always be “taken in.” To be taken in everywhere is to see the inside of everything. It is the hospitality of circumstance. With torches and trumpets, like a guest, the greenhorn is taken in by Life.

~ G.K. Chesterton, Charles Dickens

To be made a fool of is the very best that one can hope for. This is perhaps, in summary, the moral of Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy, Gargantua and Pantagruel, The Pickwick Papers, Twelfth Night, and Montaigne at his best. If we credit St Paul, it is foolishness rather than cleanliness that approximates divinity. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men.”

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Marginalia, no.301

It is rational to attack the police; nay, it is glorious.

~ G.K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy

I wonder if it’s a failure on my part not to have attracted more attention from the authorities. Am I not a rebel at heart? Do I not stick it to the man on a regular basis? I had a mohawk haircut once in high school, but not even that worked.

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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.

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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.

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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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Marginalia, no.205

I know those little phrases that seem so innocuous and, once you let them in, pollute the whole of speech. Nothing is more real than nothing. They rise up out of the pit and know no rest until they drag you down into its dark.

~ Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

In the intro to his essay collection titled On Nothing and Kindred Subjects (I’ve quoted it before), Hillaire Belloc asks about Nothing: “Is it not that which Mankind, after the great effort of life, at last attains, and that which alone can satisfy Mankind’s desire?” Verbal paradox is acceptable as comedy but not as philosophy. It makes fun reading, rarely good thinking. Too liberally indulged (Chesterton is best in small portions), it stops up the bottle of intelligence.

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Analog Beach

One of my son’s friends celebrated her sixth birthday this past weekend.  The party took place at an isolated beach on Monterey Bay, accessible only by several miles of county road that twist through shallow canyons and over little domed hills topped with eucalyptus groves and strawberry fields.  It was a cool, windy day and so the barbeque and birthday cake were enjoyed on the bluff in a shelter of cypresses, a hundred feet above the shore.  The children already knew one another and got right to the business playing hide-and-seek and tag.  We adults could only borrow on their familiarity to strike up cautious conversations about nothing in particular and stall into embarrassed silence after every few sentences.

The beach was less picked over than most.  At the tide-line were necklaces of seaweed from which broken sand dollars and brilliantly colored bits of abalone hung like charms.  Scallops of clam shell and the discarded moltings of sand crabs (Emerita analoga) bleached in the sun.  In fact, the beach is home to a populous colony of these little creatures—also known as mole crabs—, few of which were bigger than the tip of my thumb.  One scoop of a plastic toy shovel turns up dozens, flailing their phalanges to right themselves and burrow under the sand again.  Standing calf-deep in the water, my daughter screamed with glee when the retreating waves momentarily uncovered thousands at once, all around us, paddling seaward together like the reflected image of a great flock of birds.

I’m curious about their genus name: Emerita, which puts me in mind of a retired lady professor.  I wonder if that’s something like the intent.  I can only speculate, since I don’t own an etymological scientific dictionary, but they do seem of a more retiring nature than some of their predatory, claw-flashing cousins.  Sand crabs only ever move backwards, for instance, and from their shallow nests they hunt passively by straining plankton through furry antennae.  Their shells are precisely the color of the sand in which they live and so they usually escape detection by the shore birds that might like to eat them.

I feel a strange shudder whenever pelicans fly overhead.  I don’t know if this is a common experience.  They always seem impossibly large to me.  The eye marks them and the mind calculates distance and perspective to arrive at an estimate of their size, but it freezes up, it panics like Gregory Syme when he first sees the supernaturally large Sunday in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday.  California Brown Pelicans regularly attain wingspans greater than eight feet.  There’s something weirdly primeval in their movement and shape; something perverse and dimly threatening in the way they glide so solidly through the air, like shaggy pterodactyls, and explode into the sea from a height to stun and swallow unsuspecting fishes.

I wonder what the ocean looks like to a sand crab.  Probably she never sees it at all, just as we never really see the air.  It’s only the universal, invisible medium of her life.  Come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever properly seen the ocean either.  I can look at it; I can’t see it.  Scale is the challenge, like it was with the pelican.  The surface area of the Pacific is substantially greater than that of the entire planet Mars, but smaller seas must present the same difficulty.  One stands on the beach and looks in the direction of the ocean.  One tries to swallow it with the eye as a discrete object.  The shoreline is no trouble.  The first fifty yards recede sensically.  Any farther than that, however, and it collapses into two-dimensionality.  The mind abandons any attempt to comprehend volume or distance.  The infinite ocean is reduced to a roaring cardboard mural.

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