The Revival of Philosophy by G.K. Chesterton

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by G.K. Chesterton

“Some people fear that philosophy will bore or bewilder them; because they think it is not only a string of long words, but a tangle of complicated notions. These people miss the whole point of the modern situation. These are exactly the evils that exist already; mostly for want of a philosophy.”

From The Common Man: “The best reason for a revival of philosophy is that unless a man has a philosophy certain horrible things will happen to him. He will be practical; he will be progressive; he will cultivate efficiency; he will trust in evolution; he will do the work that lies nearest; he will devote himself to deeds, not words. Thus struck down by blow after blow of blind stupidity and random fate, he will stagger on to a miserable death with no comfort but a series of catchwords; such as those which I have catalogued above. Those things are simply substitutes for thoughts. In some cases they are the tags and tail-ends of somebody else’s thinking. That means that a man who refuses to have his own philosophy will not even have the advantages of a brute beast, and be left to his own instincts. He will only have the used-up scraps of somebody else’s philosophy; which the beasts do not have to inherit; hence their happiness. Men have always one of two things: either a complete and conscious philosophy or the unconscious acceptance of the broken bits of some incomplete and shattered and often discredited philosophy. Such broken bits are the phrases I have quoted: efficiency and evolution and the rest. The idea of being “practical”, standing all by itself, is all that remains of a Pragmatism that cannot stand at all. It is impossible to be practical without a Pragma. And what would happen if you went up to the next practical man you met and said to the poor dear old duffer, “Where is your Pragma?” Doing the work that is nearest is obvious nonsense; yet it has been repeated in many albums. In nine cases out of ten it would mean doing the work that we are least fitted to do, such as cleaning the windows or clouting the policeman over the head. “Deeds, not words” is itself an excellent example of “Words, not thoughts”. It is a deed to throw a pebble into a pond and a word that sends a prisoner to the gallows. But there are certainly very futile words; and this sort of journalistic philosophy and popular science almost entirely consists of them.

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Wonder and the Philosopher

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Prehistoric cave paintings from the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave (from about 35,000 years ago)

“Fairy tales founded in me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness.” ~G.K. Chesterton

“The beginning of philosophy is wonder,” and its end is divine worship.[1]  Yet since the end of the Medieval Era, philosophy has begun from a place that has ensured ends of uncertainty, dislocation, and despair. In his essay The Philosophical Act, Josef Pieper observes that modern philosophers adopt only the disillusionment aspect of wonder, never moving towards its positive ends—the ends that humble us, but also give us a cosmic location and identity. They interpret someone like Socrates as merely a gadfly, failing to see that his insistent questioning was founded upon assumptions that were deeply rooted in tradition, not merely doubt. Pieper notes that “under the impulse of a rationalistic and ‘progressive’ doctrine, the history of philosophy as it has been written in modern times, does the exact reverse and sets the beginning of philosophy at the moment when thought cut itself free from tradition.”[2] Modern man uses philosophy to break down what he sees as the confining walls of dogma without moving further up and further in, so to speak, to the wonder that will move him to praise. One such man was philosopher David Hume, the thinker that would awaken Kant from his “dogmatic slumber.”[3] Hume needed a good dose of the species of disillusionment that wonder evokes, for his doubt did not go deep enough. It merely uprooted the mind, leaving it to languish in an unexamined, skeptical dogma of its own. G.K. Chesterton’s Elfland is perfectly suited for this task, for it is built upon this more “elementary wonder” that reminds us the world is astonishing because it could have been different.[4] This is the true wonder that is the beginning of philosophy and whose end is gratitude.

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A Skeptic in Elfland

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“We need this life of practical romance; the combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.”[1]

The morning fog hung heavily about me as I waited for my appointment to arrive. He was late. “Miracles,” I thought to myself as I examined the surroundings. I had been in this part of London before, but something seemed new. The tall trees that lined the long street looked like hairy-headed giants or crowned kings in the morning mist, frozen in a sort of dignified expectation for the arrival of something or someone. Everywhere was gray and dull as the light from the early sun struggled to penetrate the air, deciding instead to let the fog win. I stood by the entrance to a gated park, the insides of which were completely obscured by the gloom. It was one of many such parks in London, but it was new to me. It must be private for the gate was locked.

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The Sanctity of Life

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Mary Cassatt, “The Young Mother”

“When we step into the family, by the act of being born, we do step into a world which is incalculable, into a world which has its own strange laws, into a world which could do without us, into a world we have not made. In other words, when we step into the family we step into a fairy-tale.” ~ G.K. Chesterton

“When it comes to alleviating suffering, we must prioritize the needs of the thinking, feeling, actual person walking around on two legs over and above that of the non-sentient, non-sapient, potential person in the womb.” This is a common argument for abortion that, framed in both emotionally dense and philosophically loaded language, puts the pro-life advocate into several difficult positions at once—first, to seem to not care about another’s suffering and second, to have to wade into the deep, philosophical waters of defining personhood. This argument reveals many things about the debate, not the least of which that it hinges upon the seemingly nebulous concept of personhood and an equally unquantifiable calculation of suffering. While the latter must be responded to delicately and with compassion (for it is a species of the problem of evil), the personhood aspect of the debate must be engaged, and it can be from practical, philosophical, and existential standpoints.

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Stormy Seas and Modernity

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by Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky

“We men and women are all in the same boat, upon a stormy sea. We owe to each other a terrible and tragic loyalty.” ~ G.K. Chesterton

During the opening years of the 20th century, G.K. Chesterton predicted rough waters ahead for Western civilization. “People do not know what they are doing,” he writes, “because people do not know what they are undoing.”[1] For numerous and complex reasons, a kind of religion fatigue had fallen upon Europe, and an age was dawning in which people no longer looked to Christianity as an authority. Instead, they looked to Science. Religion had been put into the box of private opinion, perhaps as a means to control it, perhaps as a means to stop the numerous religious wars that had been destabilizing culture for centuries. Regardless of the reasons, and these as complex as human nature, a divide as wide and deep as that within Christendom itself began to develop in the culture at large. The largest of these was between the so-called impartial deliverances of science and the dogmas of religion, between Reason and Faith. A mechanistic view of the universe began to take hold of the human imagination, causing it to atrophy, while a “reductive, essentially skeptical” approach to knowledge seeped into every human endeavor outside of science, including religion.[2] “If it cannot be weighed and measured,” the new scientific authorities proclaimed, “it is not really there.”[3] New technologies improved the surface of our lives, but we were forgetting who we were. In the midst of this, Darwin’s theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest offered the basis of an alternative myth that aligned well with the fierce competition of the new industrial cities. Man was in a struggle to survive in a universe that could not care less if he did just as he struggled to make a living under a factory owner that hardly knew his name. In the end, Chesterton noted that in our busy age of Science, we had forgotten man’s essence. “One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego,” he writes, “the self is more distant than any star.”[4] The fragmenting effect that all of this had on the human psyche cannot be underestimated, and we live with its effects today as we witness the destruction of some of society’s most vital and steadying institutions and ideals, like marriage and the sanctity of human life. We no longer have an integrated understanding of these, for we no longer value the imaginative faculty that could help us comprehend their essence. For the first time in history, we doubt even the existence of essences that are grounded in an immutable metaphysical reality. Instead, we shape and mold these crucial institutions to suit the moment, never asking why they were there in the first place.

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