“The Spice of Life” by G.K. Chesterton

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“ I am perfectly certain that all our world will end in despair, unless there is some way of making the mind itself, the ordinary thought we have at ordinary times, more healthy and more happy than they seem to be just now, to judge by most modern novels and poems.  You have to be happy in those quiet moments when you remember that you are alive; not in those noisy moments when you forget.  Unless we can learn again to enjoy life, we shall not long enjoy the spices of life.  ” 

~G.K. Chesterton

This short essay comes from one of the last radio broadcasts by G.K. Chesterton. It was published posthumously in a collection of the same title, The Spice of Life. With a strange but not uncharacteristic prescience, Chesterton appears to be handing off the baton to the next generation of culture shapers. He does so with a warning, though. Dale Ahlquist at The American Chesterton Society writes the following:

“It is Chesterton’s parting shot. He refers to none other than T.S. Eliot, who in many ways would be his successor as the great man of letters in the English language, who, though he shared many of Chesterton’s ideas and certainly admired him, nonetheless represents a change in outlook towards the modern world.”

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G.K. Chesterton on Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Joan D’Arc, and Jesus

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From Orthodoxy, “The Suicide of Thought”

“….Here I end (thank God) the first and dullest business of this book— the rough review of recent thought. After this I begin to sketch a view of life which may not interest my reader, but which, at any rate, interests me. In front of me, as I close this page, is a pile of modern books that I have been turning over for the purpose— a pile of ingenuity, a pile of futility. By the accident of my present detachment, I can see the inevitable smash of the philosophies of Schopenhauer and Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Shaw, as clearly as an inevitable railway smash could be seen from a balloon. They are all on the road to the emptiness of the asylum. For madness may be defined as using mental activity so as to reach mental helplessness; and they have nearly reached it. He who thinks he is made of glass, thinks to the destruction of thought; for glass cannot think. So he who wills to reject nothing, wills the destruction of will; for will is not only the choice of something, but the rejection of almost everything.

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Charlotte Brontë by G.K. Chesterton

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“She approached the universe with real simplicity, and, consequently, with real fear and delight. She was, so to speak, shy before the multitude of the stars, and in this she had possessed herself of the only force which can prevent enjoyment being as black and barren as routine. The faculty of being shy is the first and the most delicate of the powers of enjoyment. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of pleasure.”

CHARLOTTE BRONTË

by G.K. Chesterton, from Twelve Types, 1902

“Objection is often raised against realistic biography because it reveals so much that is important and even sacred about a man’s life. The real objection to it will rather be found in the fact that it reveals about a man the precise points which are unimportant. It reveals and asserts and insists on exactly those things in a man’s life of which the man himself is wholly unconscious; his exact class in society, the circumstances of his ancestry, the place of his present location. These are things which do not, properly speaking, ever arise before the human vision. They do not occur to a man’s mind; it may be said, with almost equal truth, that they do not occur in a man’s life. A man no more thinks about himself as the inhabitant of the third house in a row of Brixton villas than he thinks about himself as a strange animal with two legs. What a man’s name was, what his income was, whom he married, where he lived, these are not sanctities; they are irrelevancies.

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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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