G. K. C. on grandmothers

A commenter on another blog recently wrote two comments, which I here telescope together, as the second was explicitly written as a correction to the first:

If we are to have a stable, functional society, women can have equal rights and political participation, or they can have a functional exemption from moral consequences. They cannot have both.

The disjunction is true and logical, and not only of women, but of human beings generally. But ‘a stable, functional society’ has nothing to do with the case. It is a red herring, and a red herring of a particularly insidious type, because it amounts to denying that the question is one of morals at all. Chesterton made the point very neatly a century ago:

But the whole modern world, or at any rate the whole modern Press, has a perpetual and consuming terror of plain morals. Men always attempt to avoid condemning a thing upon merely moral grounds. If I beat my grandmother to death to-morrow in the middle of Battersea Park, you may be perfectly certain that people will say everything about it except the simple and fairly obvious fact that it is wrong. Some will call it insane; that is, will accuse it of a deficiency of intelligence. This is not necessarily true at all. You could not tell whether the act was unintelligent or not unless you knew my grandmother. Some will call it vulgar, disgusting, and the rest of it; that is, they will accuse it of a lack of manners. Perhaps it does show a lack of manners; but this is scarcely its most serious disadvantage. Others will talk about the loathsome spectacle and the revolting scene; that is, they will accuse it of a deficiency of art, or æsthetic beauty. This again depends on the circumstances: in order to be quite certain that the appearance of the old lady has definitely deteriorated under the process of being beaten to death, it is necessary for the philosophical critic to be quite certain how ugly she was before. Another school of thinkers will say that the action is lacking in efficiency: that it is an uneconomic waste of a good grandmother. But that could only depend on the value, which is again an individual matter. The only real point that is worth mentioning is that the action is wicked, because your grandmother has a right not to be beaten to death. But of this simple moral explanation modern journalism has, as I say, a standing fear. It will call the action anything else – mad, bestial, vulgar, idiotic, rather than call it sinful.

—G. K. Chesterton, ‘The Boy’ (in All Things Considered)

The only real point worth mentioning about ‘functional exemptions from moral consequences’ is that it is morally wrong to exempt anyone from moral standards, which, in so far as they are moral, must be universal if they are not meaningless. Stable and functional societies have been built upon chattel slavery, helotry, human sacrifice, and any number of other wicked and revolting practices. That does not mean that it was either wise or right to do so, or to exempt those societies from the particular moral standards that were outraged by their customs.

Dr. Samuel Johnson observed, as a good Tory opposed to the American war of independence, that the people who yapped the loudest about liberty were the slaveholding planters of Virginia. The inconsistency had to be paid for; and it was, within a century, when the accounts were squared with a million gallons of blood. Yet those slaveholders were paragons of the moral law compared to a good many of our modern opinion-makers and cultural leaders. They should be opposed because they are wrong, for they are wrong; not because they cannot succeed, for they manifestly do succeed.

A little bit wrong

Quia parvus error in principio magnus est in fine.
(For a little error in the beginning is a great error in the end.)

—St. Thomas Aquinas, opening line of De ente et essentia

Most modern people have a dangerous and deplorable habit of jumping into arguments in medias res, not bothering to inquire into the basic assumptions made by either side. Their most fiercely held opinions are apt to be based on someone else’s errors, and they don’t even know it. The people who made those mistakes were a little bit wrong; the people who take their conclusions on trust go wrong on the titanic scale.

Today I am setting out to continue work on ‘The Little Charter’. I hope I have not made a ‘little error’ in the first chapter this time. Things go pear-shaped so fast when I do.

Poetics, science, and bafflegab

‘Poetics’, for instance, is (or, are) among these sciences, but in the absence of real languages and real poetry it becomes the kind of gummy wool and bafflegab that is taught in our universities today. Like all the other sciences it is essentially applied. If there is nothing to which it can be applied, then it is tosh some tenured fool is putting over. ‘Literary theory’ is almost all like that: done by people who could not read with attention to save their lives.

—David Warren, ‘On Science’


A person falling into a manhole is rarely helped by making it possible for him to fall faster or more efficiently.

—Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason

Philosophers and philosophers

In thirty-odd years’ study of the arcane field of Philosophy, I have not learned very much; which perhaps means that I am doing it right.

Here is one thing I have definitely learned:

In the field of Philosophy, there are two kinds of people: Philosophers and Academic Philosophers. All the actual philosophies are created by the first group, but it is the second group that gets tenure.

Philosophers think very hard about the meaning of life, the nature of knowledge, and things like that, and write about it for the public.

Academic Philosophers, by tradition, are angry old men with beards and elbow patches who write incomprehensible gobbledygook at each other because they just like arguing that much.

In these enlightened times, however, Academic Philosophy has risen above its ignoble past and taken on a whole new look. For nowadays, most of the Academic Philosophers are clean-shaven.


Cosmic claustrophobia

Apropos of nothing particular, A Theory:

If you do the whole Star Trek thing, leave Earth behind, explore the galaxy, and boldly go where no man has gone before…

…you will STILL end up face to face with someone you knew in high school, and you couldn’t stand each other then, and it isn’t any better now.

This is my theory, and I would point out that it has never yet been disproved. It is neither logically impossible, nor is there any empirical evidence against it. Which is more than you can say for a lot of crackpot theories.


The modernist thirst for originality makes the mediocre artist believe that the secret of originality consists simply in being different.

—Nicolás Gómez Dávila


To tolerate does not mean to forget that what we tolerate does not deserve anything more.

—Nicolás Gómez Dávila

Relative truths

Truths are not relative. What is relative are opinions about truth.

—Nicolás Gómez Dávila

Intellectuals and civilized men

The intellectual irritates the civilized man, just as the adolescent irritates the adult, not because of the audacity of his bright ideas but because of the triviality of his arrogance.

—Nicolás Gómez Dávila

(Hat tip to ‘John M.’, a commenter at John C. Wright’s blog.)