Reading through Chesterton’s Orthodoxy: “The Ethics of Elfland” and “The Flag of the World”

In the first post of this seriesMatthew Lee Anderson and I described the merits of G.K. Chesterton and his book Orthodoxy. We also invited you to read along and discuss the latest section of the reading plan with us each week.

Previously, we focused on the introduction, “In Defense of Everything Else,” as well as chapters 2 and 3, “The Maniac” and “The Suicide of Thought.”

Today, we are discussing chapters 4 and 5, “The Ethics of Elfland” and “The Flag of the World.”orthodoxy-212x300

Matthew: Beginning in the nursery room

Now we come to the pivot, when it really starts getting fun. Chesterton spent the first two chapters critiquing the ideologies of his age (and, frankly, of ours too). Now he sets about writing down the “three or four fundamental ideas,” which he found for himself. He starts, naturally enough, in the nursery room with the stories he learned from the “the solemn and star-appointed priestess at once of democracy and tradition.” Who’s that, you say? Why the nurse, of course. Chesterton’s point about the interrelationship between democracy and tradition are worth bearing in mind, because nursery tales are an inheritance that everyone has access to.

The fascinating thing about what Chesterton learns from these stories, though, is how subtle he is distilling philosophical positions. “We believe in bodily miracles,” he points out, “but not in mental possibilities.” Distinguishing necessity from possibility isn’t the most rigorous philosophical work that can be done, but good luck finding the difference ever drawn with such verve or why it matters clarified so well. And it matters, for the contingency of the world makes it seem like magic for Chesterton, a universe where wonder and enchantment goes straight to the heart of things. It’s all very dizzying, really, if you really try to follow him.

Trevin: the wonder of existence and in repetition

What strikes me most about Chesterton’s defense of fairytales is his ability to open your eyes to the sheer wonder of existenceThe fairy tale resonates because existence itself is so magical. “Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.” It’s not the kind of nose you have – it’s the fact you have such a marvelous thing in the first place. The response to our enchanted existence is gratitude. “Children are grateful when Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?”

There’s so much here that I wish we could go into great detail in our analysis. I simply must quote my favorite section of the book, one that I cannot read out loud without losing myself in tears:

All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact. For the variation in human affairs is generally brought into them, not by life, but by death; by the dying down or breaking off of their strength or desire…

To put the matter in a popular phrase, it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grow-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.

From this emphasis on story, Chesterton follows the path back to the Storyteller. In “The Flag of the World,” there’s an interesting discussion of pessimism and optimism that begins to set the stage for the coming chapter on paradox.

Matthew: At peace with the universe; at war with the world

I can’t agree enough about the wonder of existence. But what a wonder it must be to make the argument go. The goodness of the universe would have to be more fundamental, more powerful, deeper and more overwhelming than the suffering in it. That’s a heavy burden. Can it hold it up? Perhaps not surprisingly, that’s (in his own way) where Chesterton turns next.

The connection between “The Ethics of Elfland” and “The Flag of the World” isn’t accidental: It turns out that the fundamental goodness of existence can only be met and discovered within the context of a primal oath of loyalty, a love for the world without any reason. It’s a transcendental patriotism that Chesterton is after, a patriotism that is willing to change things. “Love is not blind; that is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.” Suicide is the negation: but the martyr is no suicide, and here Christianity makes its first proper entrance to Chesterton’s scheme of things. Both the martyr and the suicide fling away their lives, but Christianity is for the one and firmly opposed to the other. “Christianity was accused, at one and the same time, of being too optimistic about the universe and of being too pessimistic about the world. The coincidence made me suddenly stand still.”

It is this question which Christianity came to answer, namely, how we can simultaneously be optimists and pessimists. And it answered it by dividing God from the world, by establishing God as the worlds playwright, by announcing that God had set the world free only we made a mess of it. “On this system one could fight all the forces of existence without deserting the flag of existence. One could be at peace with the universe and yet be at war with the world.” And at this point, the “spike of dogma fitted exactly the hole in the world,” and “Instinct after Instinct was answered by doctrine after doctrine.”

Now, share your thoughts

Next week, we will discuss chapter 6 of Orthodoxy, “The Paradoxes of Christianity,” but first, what grabbed your attention in this week’s reading?

What did you make of Chesterton’s distinguishing necessity from possibility? How have we “grown old” due to sin, while God has remained “younger”? Does the goodness of the world stand up to the burden of the suffering? Can we even know that at the present time? How can the Christian be a pessimist and an optimist simultaneously?

Matt’s note: Through a scheduling conflict, I’m unfortunately traveling during much of the day today.  But I’ll chime in just as soon as I return.  Carry on!

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  • Gabriel

    This was a fantastic ride!
    I couldn’t help but loving The Ethics of Elfland. It seems to me he is giving us a chance to believe in Romance and Adventure. Why do we see the common as mundane? Why shouldn’t I be pleasantly surprised that my wife is next to me in the morning? Why shouldn’t I see each hug from my little boy or girl as a gift for everyday? Some have said that the most important philosophical question could be “why is there something rather than nothing?” Chesterton has shown me they may be right.

    Did anyone else hear Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World as they read? When the sun comes up tomorrow I will regard it as a present, both in that it ever existed in the first place, and that when sinned God didn’t take it away.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Gabriel,

      Your use of wonder about the “common” is precisely right, and very helpful to me as I (continue) to think through the “radical” phenomenon. I wonder if “commonness”, rather than “ordinary”, might be a better way of framing the appropriate response to it.

      Matt

  • gmoothart
    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Gabe,

      Typically astute. We ought to just republish those here at Mere-O.

      I am not convinced, though, that the move from quantum mechanics to the free-will debate is a good one. It’s been a while since I’ve been engrossed in that conversation, but do the causal relations work as neatly in the bottom-up way as that point seems to presuppose?

      Matt

      • gmoothart

        Matt,
        I was actually referring to determinism in the physics sense rather than in the free-will sense. When Chesterton says “I found the whole modern world talking scientific fatalism; saying that everything is as it must always have been, being unfolded without fault from the beginning”, he is describing something that no serious scientist can believe in a post-quantum-mechanics world. Plus, quantum mechanics has just the sort of weirdness and other-worldiness that would have delighted Chesterton.

        I agree that quantum mechanics is not very helpful to discussions about free will. Random actions would hardly be more “free” than determined ones!

  • davestrunk

    Having read “Orthodoxy” many times before, I have to admit there’s a fresh reading each time.

    This time I read, it strikes me as interesting that Chesterton isn’t just taking issue with the philosophies of the day, but even other Christian philosophies. In the “Ethics of Elfland,” there are profound implications- esp. in the Wax quoted section- that speak against the school of nominalism, Occam’s razor, etc. If I may say so, he’s being more than metaphorical, so much so that he might even be literal when talking about the sun.

    Furthermore, he seems to put to death a memoralist/baptistic position of the Sacraments. Because the world is aflame with the activity of God, that in itself provides a sort of sacramental imagination. And it’s not a far leap to say a sacramental imagination leads to a belief in real, grace-giving Sacraments.

    It becomes harder and harder to read Orthodoxy and buy in to either the Enlightenment or the Anabaptists, so it seems. Chesterton really was Roman Catholic (even though he wasn’t so when he wrote this book).

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Dave,

      I think the use of “sacramental” is a bit overdone these days, and it’s tough to figure out what people mean by it. You might be interested in John Webster’s Kantzer Lectures a few years back, where he registers a complaint about it.

      Matt

      • davestrunk

        Matt,
        I’m not so sure it’s so hard to understand if one is, in fact, sacramental. Even though Catholic, Eastern, and Reformed traditions might all register different definitions of what’s happening in the Lord’s supper, there is enough shared conclusions to have a precise understanding of what the word means.

        What if G.K. really meant what he said, and God really did tell the sun to shine every single day?

        Best,
        Dave

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          “Sacrament” and “sacramental” are not exactly equivalent, of course. And many times “sacramental” seems to be bandied about as a substitute for “important.”

          Matt

          • davestrunk

            I see what you’re saying. I’ll think on this some more. My gut is that they are more interwined than not, even though I agree that they are not equivalent. I probably couldn’t be Presbyterian if they were equivalent. ;) At the very least, I hope you haven’t seen what I have said as “sacramental” being a substitute for “important” (though I agree this probably does happen, but I’m not sure “sacramental” is the new “missional” or “gospel” type of buzzword). I was really meaning that God/grace/supernatural reality is infused into hard, physical things.

      • Trevin Wax

        Also of interest are NT Wright’s three lectures on sacramentology, delivered (I believe) at Calvin College a few years back.

  • Jeff Kincaid

    Who is not filled with paradox? Seeing it in yourself and our world of duality, or separateness from God, gets at the heart of the Bible’s presentation of the human condition. In the text under consideration, Chesterton indeed prepares the way for the next chapter on Paradoxes.

    Aside from attributes of God that the Word teaches lies great mystery, enchantment, possibility. See Job 38:4ff, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding…” and Isaiah 55:8, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” How much can we really know and distinguish? Great question. 2 Corinthians 12:9 reveals, “My grace is sufficient for you…” In God’s grace lies infinity, timelessness—a grandeur beyond all questions and answers—where the poet dreams things too fine for words. Chesterton’s articulation is laudable.

  • Shawn White

    Admittedly, I’m behind in last weeks reading, but I did manage to make two passes through “The Ethics of Elfland.” For the longest time, since my first encounter with Orthodoxy many years back, this is one of my all-time favorite chapters of any book I have read. I’m sure my love of it is more simplistic and shallow than others. As with swimming, if my feet can’t touch the bottom while my head is out of the water, I get uneasy quickly.

    I love the juxtaposition of fairy land against our everyday world. Fairy land seems to be an echo from earlier chapters in that it continues to reverberate reason and wonder, while the everyday world has little to do with wonder. There is reason in the necessary things of elfland and wonder if everything else. But in the everyday world, we have taken the reasonableness of the necessary things and attempted to apply them in unnaturally to everything else. We have taken the one single idea and reapplied it to everything we see and know (back to the madman). Elfland makes a visible distinction between the two realms and yet they co-exist harmoniously; Everyday land lauds the one to the demise of the other.

    I think Chesterton’s distinction between the two ideas of necessity and possibility is a good one to maintain. Everyday land seeks to remove the possible so that all is necessary and determined. Elfland sees them co-existing together.

    In terms of how we have grown old due to sin while the Father is younger than me is a wonderful picture provided by Chesterton and a good question. Sin sets decay in motion and with it brings death. Time existed before sin, but decay was not part of time. The wearing down and wearing out does not occur for the sinless and pure – God is eternally young though God existed from eternity. We age and grow old and die. Though, being finite, we are infinitely younger than an infinite God, we are also far older than He precisely because of sin.

  • Patricia Hofer

    Somehow in reading all your comments, it sounds to me like Orthodoxy is being reviewed by the choir of orthodoxy. I’m not a member of this “choir.” My religious believing is a living, changing believing, not contained
    by orthodoxy but at many points in tune with it. I love Chesterton’s constant establishment of dualism. Life is “bright and brittle” “extraordinary and ordinary.” “optimism and pessimism.” “wildness and limitation.” This point-counterpoint exists because we are not just living creatures but conscious beings. And, to our amazement, consciousness is ever offering a more valid view of reality than the natural realness of the world. Life is indeed “precious and puzzling.” But what all human beings know, some at a deeper level than others, is that we are here for a purpose and accountable to the Person who put us here. Can there be anything more orthodox than that?

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

      Well, it’s hard to not sing in the choir of orthodoxy at a blog that is named “Mere Orthodoxy.” : )

      But this “Person” that we are accountable has, after all, a name that has been given to us in history–Jesus. And that means definitional sharpness, the way understanding my wife means knowing that she was born in one place and not the other, that she has a certain color of hair and not another, and so on.

      But perhaps I don’t understand your worry here.

      Matt

      • Patricia Hofer

        No need to lecture me on the “Person.” I was using Chesterton’s word from the chapter. I could also have used “magician.” The Lord Jesus and I are quite comfortable with each other.

        My “choir” concern is that everyone seems to agree with everything Chesterton says. I’m a huge Lewis/Mere Christianity reader. But I don’t wholly agree with Lewis. And I don’t wholly agree with Chesterton. The virtue of our personal relationship with the Lord is that it is personal, individual. Standardizing it by pasting on someone else’s orthodoxy, whole, that’s what I was questioning.

        • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com/ Matthew Lee Anderson

          Patricia,

          Thanks for the reply. I am sorry for misunderstanding you.

          If you do think it’s problematic that most everyone is in agreement with Chesterton so far, perhaps you would say what you find disagreeable.

          It seems to me that the individuality of our relationship with Jesus sits comfortably with the universality of orthodoxy. After all, as Chesterton argues in the introduction we do not each have our *own* orthodoxy, but rather there is one orthodoxy that in turn makes us.

          Matt

          • Patricia Hofer

            For orthodoxy to be as perfect (spot-on?) as Chesterton says it is, its balance must be unerring and error-free. I prefer his use of the word “swerving.” It offers a little more of an imperfect or haphazard journey for Christian
            orthodoxy. It must ever be swerving away from the tempting pantheistic worship of nature (which Chesterton’s “elfland” subtly edges into at times). And then if it swerves too far, it gets into the legalism of “ethics”—someone sitting in a room snapping his fingers, not even hearing the music that is the inspiration for the action.