… [this visionary religion] can contemplate the idea of success or triumph in the hopeless fight towards the ethical ideal
In so much of the modern discussion, we hear something along the following lines: “well, we may not be able to define the good, but we certainly understand evil.” Modern morality only offers the negative, the imperfection. “It has no perfection to point to,” as Chesterton writes.
The monk, whether meditating on Christ or Buddha, has some idea of perfection in mind, “an image of perfect health.” He may go mad while continuously contemplating such things, but it remains true that it is wholeness and happiness that he is contemplating.
For the modern student of ethics, such is not available. He can quickly point to Hitler or Saddam or the civil war statue or the white man as evil, but has nothing to offer regarding the good.
A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome.
This, as Chesterton describes it, is the great gap in modern ethics – and by modern, remember that this was written 115 years ago: there is an absence of vivid pictures of purity, of spiritual triumph. We can only contemplate the negative, with no picture of the good.
The ordinary honest man was not simply annoyed with the moderns:
What disgusted him, and very justly, was not the presence of a clear realism, but the absence of a clear idealism.
We have some idea of the target to avoid, but we have no target at which to aim. “if it feels good, do it.” I guess this is the target. If it feels good to bomb innocents, choke helpless men, smash storefronts, go ahead and do it. After all, there are probably as many who see these things as “good” as see the opposite in these.
Many are quick to point to what they see as the faults of organized religion, but it certainly has one thing that modern morality cannot offer:
But if it was a chief claim of religion that it spoke plainly about evil, it was the chief claim of all that it spoke plainly about good.
Chesterton would say that the eye that sees the evil is gaining clarity; the eye that sees good is growing mistier. It is a testament to Chesterton that he saw this even ten years before the war that finally crushed the West. He probably wouldn’t be surprised to see today the self-satisfied perfect vision by which everyone is capable to see the evil – and only the evil – in everyone and everything.
Chesterton would compare Dante’s Divine Comedy with Ibsen’s Ghosts:
…Dante describes three moral instruments—Heaven, Purgatory, and Hell, the vision of perfection, the vision of improvement, and the vision of failure. Ibsen has only one—Hell.
Yes, one could read Ghosts and come away with an understanding of the necessity of an ethical self-command, but it is the ethical self-command of the hangman’s noose. That is the answer for evil; but where is the good? There are wholesome people in Ibsen; but there is a vagueness in what is really wisdom and virtue. A vague target can never be hit.
How are wisdom and virtue brought about? The answer won’t be found in Ibsen, or in science. The cardinal virtues cannot be discovered in either of these. Both can give us a definite picture of evil, but are unable to offer that which is good.
Chesterton offers that a silent collapse has come upon what he calls “our Northern Civilization”:
All previous ages have sweated and been crucified in an attempt to realize what is really the right life, what was really the good man.
All we have today are “a few notice-boards”: don’t drink too much; say no to drugs; if you see something, say something. Chesterton describes modern phrases such as these as a “dodge,” in order to shirk the problem of what is good.
Liberty and education are two such words, but liberty and education toward what end? We have used both liberty and education as a means by which to excuse any need to discover such ends. We have the liberty to avoid the good, and an education system that emphasizes this.
The modern man says, "Let us leave all these arbitrary standards and embrace liberty." This is, logically rendered, "Let us not decide what is good, but let it be considered good not to decide it."
Here is the foundationless non-aggression principle.
He says, "Away with your old moral formulae; I am for progress." This, logically stated, means, "Let us not settle what is good; but let us settle whether we are getting more of it."
Here you have Steven Pinker.
He says, "Neither in religion nor morality, my friend, lie the hopes of the race, but in education." This, clearly expressed, means, "We cannot decide what is good, but let us give it to our children."
And here is why the state will educate your children.
Both realists and dynamiters are well-meaning people engaged in the task, so obviously ultimately hopeless, of using science to promote morality.
The realists and dynamiters are doing battle with each other, neither able to grasp that the answer sits right in front of them – contemplate the good. The realists are unwilling to do this, and the dynamiters are unable…because they have been taught by the realists.
The path from science to morality is a hopeless fight. We have been living in this age of science and reason coming on three hundred years and wonder why the West is in such intractable chaos. Today we have those realists (e.g. Steven Pinker and Sam Harris) at the throats of the dynamiters (have you seen the streets lately, or the universities for decades?) and vice versa, each one knowing what evil is: the other one. Yet neither knows the good.
What is the good of begetting a man until we have settled what is the good of being a man?
We are begetting men without chests. By asking the question, Chesterton has answered it.
We need the monk, contemplating what is good – at least he is capable of contemplating success or triumph in this endeavor. In this, there is hope. This hopeless fight only has hope if we contemplate the good.
What is good? It can certainly be found in the Virtues. Try the Cardinal Virtues to start. Dwell on these long enough and see if you then don’t conclude that the good of a man can only come by also including the Theological Virtues.
After this, you might find a path toward liberty. Even on this earth.