Chesterton, Orthodoxy, and Aesthetic First Principles

In a famous quip about Revelation, G.K. Chesterton wrote, “And though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.”

I am not surprised that the same truism applies to Chesterton’s own body of work, as it can be as wild and unruly as he occasionally was.  But I was hoping I wouldn’t find such a commentator at the estimable League, which is the home of the some of the web’s most interesting and insightful prose.

I’ll grant up front that I am one of those Chesterton fans who is, ahem, slightly passionate about the man.  I make no apologies for it:  I suspect I wouldn’t be a Christian today without Chesterton’s witness, and still find his work keeps my sense of romance and adventure alive where few others can.  Call it a Chestertonian patriotic attachment, if you must.

But anecdotes aside, there are intellectual disputes to be had.  From Austin Bramwell’s analysis:

“It’s true: As a record of how Chesterton came to Christianity, Orthodoxy is completely unpersuasive. Every sentence conjures up the Chesterton persona. An actual person who doubts and discovers, and changes his thinking as a result, never emerges.”

Bramwell is affirming Maurice Cowling’s assessment here, but that doesn’t excuse it.  I’ll content myself with two points.

First, as a description of Orthodoxy‘s purpose, it relies too much on the preface, and not enough on the actual work.  As Chesterton says in the opening paragraph, Orthodoxy is not a “series of deductions”  but an attempt “in a vague and personal way, in a set of mental pictures, to state the philosophy in which [he has] come to believe.”  The point of calling it “autobiographical” in the beginning is to suggest that it is a personal picture–or series of pictures–that Chesterton is painting.  It is a self-consciously “slovenly autobiography.”  If he has failed to meet Cowley and Bramwell’s criteria, he can hardly be held to the account, for I dare say he warned them from the beginning.

Second, it’s the sort of analysis that seems to want Chesterton to be an angst-ridden teenager, rather than an early twentieth-century British man.  In “The Paradoxes of Christianity,” for instance, Chesterton walks through the objections against Christianity that he had affirmed at one point, and then makes the transition:  “And then in a quiet hour a strange thought struck me like a still thunderbolt. There had suddenly come into my mind another explanation.”  As if to say, “I changed my mind.”

If the main point is one of Chesterton’s style, I might suggest an alternate explanation:  the rhetoric isn’t a persona at all, but is actually part of Chesterton’s personality.  Though he was no stranger to doubt and depression–he seems to have nearly committed suicide, in fact–he was by all accounts a truly happy man, and seems to have actually achieved some measure of the almost unknown quantity of joy.

But then there’s this bit from Crowley:

“But it was connected with a harder idea — that of Christianity as the “slash of the sword” which would destroy natural religion, the Arnoldian compromise, and the Inner Light, and establish that the world was a good deal less “regular” than it looked.” It was to a world where “life” was “unreasonable” and superstition abounding, and where “earthquakes of emotion” could be unloosed about a word that Christian vigilance was presented as the response.

Chesterton certainly thought the world was significantly less “regular” than it looked on the surface.  But then that’s not a terribly difficult belief to accept, and certainly not the sort of claim that undermines reason itself.  It may turn out the world is less ordered than it initially seems on the surface.  And that’s the heart of Chesterton’s picture, which he titles, “The Paradoxes of Christianity.”  When he goes so far as to speak of an “illogical truth,” he does so rhetorically (as evidenced by the self-conscious qualifications) to highlight the fact that even when we peer behind the superficial order of the world, Christianity has the best explanation.

But Cowley’s point about “supersition abounding” is perhaps the worst aspect of his misreading, and may betray a slight bias against Chesterton himself.  Anytime Chesterton mentions superstition in the book, he does so negatively, except in one case–when he suggests that the arguments against medieval miracles are inherently circular and driven by the dogma of materialism, rather than reason.  Chesterton’s universe is a supernatural universe.  It is a universe where miracles occur.  But “superstitious” is pejorative, Chesterton seems to accept it as such, and nowhere does he argue for anything approaching it–unless we think that believing in and expecting miracles is inherently superstitious.

Bramwell tacks this on by way of clarification:

In other words, Chesterton is an irrationalist. His seeks to paralyze the intellect in order to make room for awe. Admittedly, there can be no religion without awe (at least I think that’s right). Still, if Cowling is right, Chesterton opposes the traditions of natural theology and faith seeking understanding. His Christianity tries to keep reason permanently cabined.

Well, if he wishes to keep reason “cabined” so that it survives, then Bramwell is precisely right.  We might say that Chesterton wishes to make room for awe in order to keep the intellect healthy, for it is precisely when awe is jettisoned that reason becomes diseased.  So where Bramwell suggests there is no “religion without awe,” Chesterton might retort that there is no reason, either.

Bramwell’s suggestion that Chesterton opposes “faith seeking understanding” can be read one of two ways:  either Chesterton opposes faith, a reading that is so absurd that I trust Bramwell wouldn’t even consider it, or Chesterton opposes seeking understanding once we have accepted certain first principles by faith.

But even that reading won’t stand up as an account of Chesterton’s thought.  Besides the fact that it ignores Chesterton’s biography of Thomas Aquinas, it misses Chesterton’s account of faith and reason earlier in Orthodoxy. With apologies for the extended quotations:

The last chapter has been concerned only with a fact of observation: that what peril of morbidity there is for man comes rather from his reason than his imagination. It was not meant to attack the authority of reason; rather it is the ultimate purpose to defend it. For it needs defence. The whole modern world is at war with reason; and the tower already reels…

It is idle to talk always of the alternative of reason and faith. Reason is itself a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, “Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?” The young sceptic says, “I have a right to think for myself.” But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, “I have no right to think for myself. I have no right to think at all.”

“There is a thought that stops thought. That is the only thought that ought to be stopped. That is the ultimate evil against which all religious authority was aimed. It only appears at the end of decadent ages like our own: and already Mr. H.G.Wells has raised its ruinous banner; he has written a delicate piece of scepticism called “Doubts of the Instrument.” In this he questions the brain itself, and endeavours to remove all reality from all his own assertions, past, present, and to come. But it was against this remote ruin that all the military systems in religion were originally ranked and ruled. The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defence of reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first. The authority of priests to absolve, the authority of popes to define the authority, even of inquisitors to terrify: these were all only dark defences erected round one central authority, more undemonstrable, more supernatural than all—the authority of a man to think. We know now that this is so; we have no excuse for not knowing it. For we can hear scepticism crashing through the old ring of authorities, and at the same moment we can see reason swaying upon her throne. In so far as religion is gone, reason is going. For they are both of the same primary and authoritative kind. They are both methods of proof which cannot themselves be proved. And in the act of destroying the idea of Divine authority we have largely destroyed the idea of that human authority by which we do a long-division sum. With a long and sustained tug we have attempted to pull the mitre off pontifical man; and his head has come off with it.”

Chesterton is clearly a fideist, but it’s a fideism designed to safeguard reason by establishing it on its proper foundations.  While Chesterton’s democratic tendencies made him defend the peasant for his common-sense, there is no hint of the rejection of seeking understanding anywhere in Orthodoxy.

In fact, as much as seeking understanding is a movement of desire, we might say that the whole romance of orthodoxy exists in that quest. If I might wax philosophic for a moment, the act of understanding seems to be a strange fusion of familiarity (recognition) and newness.  We see the same truth, but in a particular sort of way.  It’s that puzzle that Plato loved, and that Chesterton turned into a novel.

There’s a lesson in all this about how to read Orthodoxy. His aim is more narrow in the book than most people realize:  he is not trying to provide a comprehensive case for Christianity, but trying to expound the heart of Christian dogma as he sees it, leaving the logical case for elsewhere.  After Heretics, he had been challenged to say what people should believe in.  His answer is Orthodoxy, but to demand he say “why” others should affirm it misses the point.

What’s more, Chesterton is the last medieval.  He is a Thomist, and as for Thomas goodness is commensurate with being.  Or in Chesterton’s adaptation, reality must be fundamentally good.  “Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial.”  It is the principle that runs throughout the whole of Orthodoxy, even if it’s not clarified until the very end.  And if Chesterton hides the depths of his anxiety when describing the philosophies which once held him captive, I suspect that it has more to  do with his adamant refusal to let them altar or remove his joy any longer.

Orthodoxy is Chesterton’s attempt to paint the first principles of a reality that is both good and beautiful.  And as we know from Thomas, first principles cannot be defended–they can only be seen.   It is precisely the artistically trained writer, the one who wanted to “work a revolution in daily-paper writing by the introduction of poetical prose,” who is most suitable to show them to us.

Addendum: Want more?  See the other version.

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  • http://www.theredemptiveangle.com Dave Strunk

    I felt the same way when I read Bramwell’s post, Matthew. Has this guy not read Chesterton’s biography of Aquinas? Against Natural Theology? Chesterton is absolutely for it. His argument is always that philosophical naturalism is ultimately without reason, despite how much people equate “reason” with “materialism.”

  • I.J.Reilly

    Matt,

    You say, “Chesterton is clearly a fideist…”

    What do you mean by fideism here?

    And don’t you think Lewis would classify as a medievalist?

  • http://mereorthodoxy.com Matthew Lee Anderson

    I.J.,

    Great questions. I just mean that Chesterton has a very high view of faith, such that we may not be able to rationally defend the axioms that we believe.

    And Lewis was definitely a medievalist. But Chesterton was the last medieval. : ) I think Lewis offered more of a synthesis of the western tradition, and one that borrowed heavily from the neo-platonic tradition. Chesterton, though, was medieval through and through.

    matt