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

August 28th, 2013 | 7 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

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!

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.