‘Don’ts for Dogmatists’

I should very much like to write one last roaring, raging book telling all the rationalists not to be so utterly irrational. The book would be simply a string of violent vetoes, like the Ten Commandments. I would call it ‘Don’ts for Dogmatists; or Things I Am Tired Of’.


. . . . . . . . . .

Don’t say, ‘There is no true creed; for each creed believes itself right and the others wrong.’ Probably one of the creeds is right and the others are wrong. Diversity does show that most of the views must be wrong. It does not by the faintest logic show that they all must be wrong.

I suppose there is no subject on which opinions differ with more desperate sincerity than about which horse will win the Derby. These are certainly solemn convictions; men risk ruin for them. The man who puts his shirt on Potosi must believe in that animal, and each of the other men putting their last garments upon other quadrupeds must believe in them quite as sincerely. They are all serious, and most of them are wrong. But one of them is right. One of the faiths is justified; one of the horses does win; not always even the dark horse which might stand for Agnosticism, but often the obvious and popular horse of Orthodoxy. Democracy has its occasional victories; and even the Favourite has been known to come in first. But the point here is that something comes in first. That there were many beliefs does not destroy the fact that there was one well-founded belief.

I believe (merely upon authority) that the world is round. That there may be tribes who believe it to be triangular or oblong does not alter the fact that it is certainly some shape, and therefore not any other shape. Therefore I repeat, with the wail of imprecation, don’t say that the variety of creeds prevents you from accepting any creed. It is an unintelligent remark.

—G. K. Chesterton, A Miscellany of Men

On St. George Revivified

An essay by G. K. Chesterton, as collected in All I Survey, reproduced here in honour of St. George’s Day.

The disadvantage of men not knowing the past is that they do not know the present. History is a hill or high point of vantage, from which alone men see the town in which they live or the age in which they are living. Without some such contrast or comparison, without some such shifting of the point of view, we should see nothing whatever of our own social surroundings. We should take them for granted, as the only possible social surroundings. We should be as unconscious of them as we are, for the most part, of the hair growing on our heads or the air passing through our lungs. It is the variety of the human story that brings out sharply the last turn that the road has taken, and it is the view under the arch of the gateway which tells us that we are entering a town.

Yet this sense of the past is curiously patchy among the most intelligent and instructed people, especially in modern England. Among a hundred such scraps and snippets, I saw this morning a literary competition in an exceedingly highbrow weekly, a prize being awarded for a conversation between a modern interviewer and St. George. And I was struck by the fact that clever, and even brilliant, contributors missed much of the point, even about the modern interviewer, by missing the point about the ancient saint. [Read more…]

Modern Thought

These philosophers, like so many modern philosophers, do not possess the patience to see what they are taking for granted.  Have you ever seen a fellow fail at the high jump because he had not gone far enough back for his run? That is Modern Thought.  It is so confident of where it is going to that it does not know where it comes from.

—G. K. Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity

Neighbours and enemies

The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people.

 —G. K. Chesterton, The Uses of Diversity

Finishing sentences

I have been reading G. K. C.’s autobiography, and here and there having flashes of fellow-feeling where I least expected them. It is common enough with me to feel that I understand something that Chesterton understands, but an entire surprise to find that one of those things, even in small part, should be William Butler Yeats.

Here one master of English rhetoric remarks upon another, with, I believe, exquisite and approving justice:

I can still remember old Yeats, that graceful greybeard, saying in an offhand way about the South African War, ‘Mr. Joseph Chamberlain has the character, as he has the face, of the shrewish woman who ruins her husband by her extravagance; and Lord Salisbury has the character, as he has the face, of the man who is so ruined.’ That style, or swift construction of a complicated sentence, was the sign of a lucidity now largely lost. You will find it in the most spontaneous explosions of Dr. Johnson. Since then some muddled notion has arisen that talking in that complete style is artificial; merely because the man knows what he means and means to say it. I know not from what nonsense world the notion first came; that there is some connection between being sincere and being semi-articulate. But it seems to be a notion that a man must mean what he says, because he breaks down even in trying to say it; or that he must be a marvel of power and decision, because he discovers in the middle of a sentence that he does not know what he was going to say. Hence the conversation of current comedy; and the pathetic belief that talk may be endless, so long as no statement is allowed to come to an end.

—G. K. Chesterton, Autobiography

Finishing schools

There used to be, and possibly is, a mysterious institution for young ladies known as a finishing-school. The chief case against it was that, in certain instances, it meant finishing an education without ever beginning it. In any case, this is what is the matter with a great many modern institutions…. The curse of nearly all such judgements is the journalistic curse of having heard the latest news; that is, of having heard the end of the story without having even heard of the beginning. We talk of people not knowing the A B C of a subject, but the trouble with these people is that they do know the X Y Z of a subject without knowing the A B C.

—G. K. Chesterton, All I Survey

I draw just one distinguo. The latest news, in such affairs, is seldom or never the last news. Journalists, and the sort of people who take their opinions from journalism, are much more likely to walk into the middle of a conversation, hear the L M N of the subject, and suppose that it ends there; or project its ultimate outcome without ever inquiring about its grounds or origins, and hastily conclude that it will end with something like Ayin, Psi, Wum. The eventual arrival of X Y Z, so predictable to those few sensible people who inquired into the whole of the subject, nearly always leaves the journal-minded in a state of indignant surprise.

G.K.C. on differences of religion

Certain famous and influential persons would have us believe, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings, that one religion is exactly like another, and in particular, that Christianity is just as bad as Islam. The answer to this ought to be too obvious to need stating; except that in our times, it is precisely the obvious that always does need to be stated, over and over again. So once again, here is Chesterton on that very subject, with a hat tip to Mary Catelli for reminding me of this passage:

The things said most confidently by advanced persons to crowded audiences are generally those quite opposite to the fact; it is actually our truisms that are untrue. Here is a case.

There is a phrase of facile liberality uttered again and again at ethical societies and parliaments of religion: ‘the religions of the earth differ in rites and forms, but they are the same in what they teach.’ It is false; it is the opposite of the fact. The religions of the earth do not greatly differ in rites and forms; they do greatly differ in what they teach. It is as if a man were to say, ‘Do not be misled by the fact that the Church Times and the Freethinker look utterly different, that one is painted on vellum and the other carved on marble, that one is triangular and the other hectagonal; read them and you will see that they say the same thing.’ The truth is, of course, that they are alike in everything except in the fact that they don’t say the same thing.

An atheist stockbroker in Surbiton looks exactly like a Swedenborgian stockbroker in Wimbledon. You may walk round and round them and subject them to the most personal and offensive study without seeing anything Swedenborgian in the hat or anything particularly godless in the umbrella. It is exactly in their souls that they are divided.

So the truth is that the difficulty of all the creeds of the earth is not as alleged in this cheap maxim: that they agree in meaning, but differ in machinery. It is exactly the opposite. They agree in machinery; almost every great religion on earth works with the same external methods, with priests, scriptures, altars, sworn brotherhoods, special feasts. They agree in the mode of teaching; what they differ about is the thing to be taught. Pagan optimists and Eastern pessimists would both have temples, just as Liberals and Tories would both have newspapers. Creeds that exist to destroy each other both have scriptures, just as armies that exist to destroy each other both have guns.

—G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy

(Paragraph breaks added.)

Literary hospitality

All I know was that the Canadian literary society rushed out, as it were, full of hospitality, wanting to welcome anybody from England – any stray traveller. In the confusion of the moment I was mistaken for a literary man and dragged in to partake of that glorious camaraderie. I didn’t know what to do. I thought of trying to explain that I was a lecturer. But that wouldn’t do because some of them had been to my lecture.

—G. K. Chesterton

Christ the Confucian

Now the best relation to our spiritual home is to be near enough to love it. But the next best is to be far enough away not to hate it. It is the contention of these pages that while the best judge of Christianity is a Christian, the next best judge would be something more like a Confucian. The worst judge of all is the man now most ready with his judgements; the ill-educated Christian turning gradually into the ill-tempered agnostic, entangled in the end of a feud of which he never understood the beginning, blighted with a sort of hereditary boredom with he knows not what, and already weary of hearing what he has never heard. He does not judge Christianity calmly as a Confucian would; he does not judge it as he would judge Confucianism. He cannot by an effort of fancy set the Catholic Church thousands of miles away in strange skies of morning and judge it as impartially as a Chinese pagoda.

It is said that the great St. Francis Xavier, who very nearly succeeded in setting up the Church there as a tower overtopping all pagodas, failed partly because his followers were accused by their fellow missionaries of representing the Twelve Apostles with the garb or attributes of Chinamen. But it would be far better to see them as Chinamen, and judge them fairly as Chinamen, than to see them as featureless idols merely made to be battered by iconoclasts; or rather as cockshies to be pelted by empty-handed cockneys. It would be better to see the whole thing as a remote Asiatic cult; the mitres of its bishops as the towering head dresses of mysterious bonzes; its pastoral staffs as the sticks twisted like serpents carried in some Asiatic procession; to see the prayer book as fantastic as the prayer-wheel and the Cross as crooked as the Swastika.

Then at least we should not lose our temper as some of the sceptical critics seem to lose their temper, not to mention their wits. Their anti-clericalism has become an atmosphere, an atmosphere of negation and hostility from which they cannot escape. Compared with that, it would be better to see the whole thing as something belonging to another continent, or to another planet. It would be more philosophical to stare indifferently at bonzes than to be perpetually and pointlessly grumbling at bishops. It would be better to walk past a church as if it were a pagoda than to stand permanently in the porch, impotent either to go inside and help or to go outside and forget. For those in whom a mere reaction has thus become an obsession, I do seriously recommend the imaginative effort of conceiving the Twelve Apostles as Chinamen. In other words, I recommend these critics to try to do as much justice to Christian saints as if they were Pagan sages.

—G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man

(Paragraph breaks added for convenience in online reading. —T.S.)

G. K. C. on paradox

Paradox has been defined as ‘Truth standing on her head to get attention’. Paradox has been defended; on the ground that so many fashionable fallacies still stand firmly on their feet, because they have no heads to stand on. But it must be admitted that writers, like other mendicants and mountebanks, frequently do try to attract attention. They set out conspicuously, in a single line in a play, or at the head or tail of a paragraph, remarks of this challenging kind; as when Mr. Bernard Shaw wrote: ‘The Golden Rule is that there is no Golden Rule’; or Oscar Wilde observed: ‘I can resist everything except temptation’; or a duller scribe (not to be named with these and now doing penance for his earlier vices in the nobler toil of celebrating the virtues of Mr. Pond) said in defence of hobbies and amateurs and general duffers like himself: ‘If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.’ To these things do writers sink; and then the critics tell them that they ‘talk for effect’; and then the writers answer: ‘What the devil else should we talk for? Ineffectualness?’

—G. K. Chesterton, The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond