I wish to deal with my most distinguished contemporaries, not personally or in a merely literary manner, but in relation to the real body of doctrine which they teach.
Too many quotes by Chesterton have come my way for me to continue to relegate his work to some future date. I am starting with Heretics; here he is criticizing various writers of his time – his time being more than one hundred years ago. One can get an idea of what Chesterton means by heretics through the following:
I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic—that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine. I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic—that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong.
Well, he isn’t shy. In his first chapter, he begins with an examination on the importance of orthodoxy:
…whatever else we think of as affecting practical affairs, we do not think it matters whether a man is a pessimist or an optimist, a Cartesian or a Hegelian, a materialist or a spiritualist.
I read this and put it in the context of much of my writing: something foundational must come before liberty is possible. Read Chesterton’s sentence and tell me if you can make “anything peaceful” libertarianism work if such differences matter, and matter deeply.
Do the differences matter? Perhaps not, if we believe that economic trade is sufficient to hold a society together. But I look around at the most broadly affluent society in the history of the world and see nothing but growing tension, destruction, and a complete loss of meaning. If economic trade is sufficient, then Steven Pinker is right: what are we complaining about? Yet we are complaining, more than ever. Why? What’s missing?
Chesterton wonders: Does it matter when we hear the pessimist toss out the throwaway line, “life is not worth living”? The “old Liberals,” as Chesterton calls them, “removed the gags from all the heresies.” By doing this, they believed all sorts of new religious and philosophical truths would be discovered. This is great, as long as one believes that there is no such thing as cosmic (objective) truth, or if there is it is rather unimportant.
Yet this is the world we see around us. Chesterton wrote these essays in 1905, a decade before the calamity that gave meaning to the destruction of the old order. He was able to see and write such things at the time when the West was at the peak of its (classical) liberal experience. He sees the dwindling of the ideals of liberty and order in the previous decades.
We are exhorted to consider the horrendous actions of the Church during medieval times – men cross-examined for preaching some immoral attitude. Yet Chesterton offers us the example of Oscar Wilde, flattered by his admirers in the nineteenth century for preaching immoral attitudes, who then subsequently…
…broke his heart in penal servitude because he carried it out. It may be a question which of the two methods was the more cruel; there can be no kind of question which was the more ludicrous.
At least the Inquisition was not hypocritical. Kind of like citing from Martin Luther King has now been labeled a dog-whistle. This hypocrisy, this loss of ideals, has resulted in a weak people:
When everything about a people is for the time growing weak and ineffective, it begins to talk about efficiency.
Isn’t this the standard measuring stick for many, including many libertarians? We need no foundation; we just need to maximize efficiency. But vigorous organisms, as Chesterton puts it, do not speak of their processes; they speak of their aims. With the loss of foundation, we have lost the possibility of blasphemy:
Blasphemy is an artistic effect, because blasphemy depends upon a philosophical conviction. Blasphemy depends upon belief and is fading with it. If any one doubts this, let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor. I think his family will find him at the end of the day in a state of some exhaustion.
Well, good thing Chesterton didn’t live to see the day that Thor came out of the closet. But I digress. Blasphemy is a lack of reverence for anything sacred; when reverence is lost, eventually nothing is sacred. What we revere today is worldly wisdom. But what is considered wise when there is no foundation? How are we to judge? Do we allow the wise to also judge their wisdom?
I see that the men who killed each other about the orthodoxy of the Homoousion were far more sensible than the people who are quarrelling about the Education Act.
At least these men of the fourth century were fighting over what was to be considered holy. What are men killing each other for today? The moderns are after religious liberty without understanding what is meant by “religious” or “liberty.” At least the priests of old took the trouble to define and explain their concepts, what it was that was meant.
Chesterton ends this first chapter with an analogy. A commotion rises on the street; many influential men want to knock down a lamp-post:
A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, "Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—" At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down.
The people then rush the lamp-post and pull it down in a few minutes, congratulating each other on their efficiency and practicality. But they each had different reasons for pulling it down: some wanted the bulb, some the iron, some wanted darkness in which to practice their evil deeds.
So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.
We speak of liberty, equality and fraternity in the dark. We speak of life, liberty and the pursuit of property or happiness (take your pick) without the vaguest notion of the meaning of these terms and without understanding what is the necessary precondition to realize the meaning.
As C. S. Lewis would offer a few decades later:
We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings to be fruitful.