“The Philosophy of First Thoughts”

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“We can never fight our way back to what we originally thought of something; it is blotted from our memory like the first version of a sketch that has been rubbed out thirty times.”

“The Philosophy of First Thoughts” by G.K. Chesterton

The Speaker, September 14, 1901

Proverbs are regarded as sacred things. The mere word suffices for the name of one of the books of the Bible, and yet it is remarkable what a large number of current proverbs when properly understood seem like texts from the horrible scriptures of a lower world. Proverbs are commonly at the best truisms; and a truism is a dead truth, a truth that we no longer feel as true. Spring, the stars, marriage, and death are truths, and it should be the aim of all literature and philosophy to prevent their becoming truisms. But it is extraordinary to notice the large number of proverbs, enshrining the wisdom of many generations, which are really mean and materialistic axioms fighting at every point against the realisation of a higher and more liberal life. We are told, for example, that “a penny saved is a penny gained,” but proverbial philosophy is silent upon the far deeper and more practical piece of wisdom that a penny spent is a penny gained. If the author of the proverb wished to express himself with true philosophical lucidity he should have said that a penny saved is a penny placed in such a position that at some remote period it may effectively be gained. This form of words would make the proverb slightly more inconvenient for the purposes of constant repetition, but this I incline to think would be an advantage. Instances might be produced ad infinitum. It is said that “little things please little minds” but there is perhaps no better test of a great mind than that it reverences little things. It is said that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and a whole sermon might be preached against the vulgarity and inhumanity of the sentiment. A flower growing untouched in a meadow, a flower, therefore, that is really a flower, is immeasurably more ours when we enjoy it as such than when we amputate it, and put it in a pot, as if it were a diseased limb. A part of the cosmic life which preserves its own divine indifference to ourselves is worth any number of cosmic slaves that we have taught to fawn upon us. A bird in the bush is worth two in the hand. Everywhere we find this same quality in proverbs, that, although they are certainly not immoral, although they may be said to contain a certain brisk diurnal morality, yet they certainly fight so far as they go against the higher and braver life. But in no case is this so remarkable as in the curious statement that second thoughts are best.

First thoughts are almost always best; we can none of us judge of the thing that we see every day. Nay, we can none of us even see it. The collision between the mind of man and a fact or an idea is like the collision between two hurtling railway trains; it does finally prove which is the stronger. First thoughts are more clean, more just, more thankful, more comprehensive, but there is one incidental disadvantage which attaches to first thoughts. This disadvantage is that no one can possibly discover what they are. Our real first thoughts are hidden from us like the thoughts of some remote maniac in a subterranean cell. We can never fight our way back to what we originally thought of something; it is blotted from our memory like the first version of a sketch that has been rubbed out thirty times. Yet our view of all things is likely to be based on that forgotten and eradicated moment. A man may discover the song of the stars and the secret of perpetual motion, but it is doubtful whether he can ever discover what he really thinks.

One institution, for example, which has been much discussed from every conceivable point of view, is the institution which is called existence. Existence has been described as a temple and as a thieves’ kitchen, as an instrument of music, and as an instrument of torture, but the question of what people really think of existence is hidden and buried under innumerable philosophies and intellectual conventions. The universe, as it really is to us, is an undiscoverable thing; it is a lost universe. It may have occurred to many that a fish cannot paint pictures or speak in Parliament, or dine at the Hotel Cecil. And yet the worst of all the misfortunes of the fish is, that he cannot enjoy putting his head in cold water. He can never feel that clean and sacred shock which a man has when he puts his head into a common earthenware basin and instantly has all the stars in his eyes and all the songs in his ears. The fish forgets the sea with the dark and irrevocable forgetfulness with which the bird forgets the wood and the daisy forgets the meadow. In other words, he can never know what are his own first thoughts about water. He has got used to it, and getting used to things is the primitive and mystic sin by which Adam fell and by which all creation falls. Just as the fish knows nothing of the sea so we know nothing of the earth. The earth is as far from us as Atlantis or Asgard. Beyond the last islet of the fantastic archipelago of the sunset lies in immemorial mystery the land which we tread down with our boot soles. And buried under a vast and star-kissing rubbish heap of deductions and generalisations lie our first thoughts, which are best.

Sometimes for one clear and confounding instant men realise what are their first thoughts about existence. They realise them if they walk suddenly to the brink of a precipice or if a highwayman holds a pistol to their heads. In that instant trees that have been growing grey become suddenly and vividly green; the whole universe has the air of a home, the sea boils like a pot, and the stars become as tame and kindly as wax candles, The man realises that he has been in love with life ever since he had it, and that, like a woman in a novel, he has been abusing that which he loved best. The true paradise, the actual heaven towards which we are all journeying, lies neither beyond the stars nor under the world; it lies in the things and scenes we look at every day, and which wait until we shall have learned to look at them. Pessimism is a merely logical thing; it is based upon a fussy and discontented notion of official consistency. To the first thought good is a positive quantity, evil a negative, and one ray of daylight in moral as in physical circumstances conquers the darkness of a hundred years.

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