In this post, I will pick up some thoughts from a couple of different chapters of Chesterton’s book.
Good and Evil
The difficulty does not arise so much from the mere fact that good and evil are mingled in roughly equal proportions; it arises chiefly from the fact that men always differ about what parts are good and what evil.
It is impossible to reach agreement on what is good and what is evil without some commonly understood and accepted standard, or without some target at which to aim. This seems so obvious to state, yet it is the fundamental principle that society has ignored. One cannot say “job well done” without a standard by which “well done” can be measured. Chesterton made this point clearly in an earlier chapter of this book.
At least in those societies that were grounded in Christianity, there was a standard: all men are created in God’s image; love God; love your neighbor. We were given an example in Jesus. This example was further developed by the earliest Christian fathers.
While the target is perfect, suffice it to say man’s performance against it – even the Christian man’s performance against it – was and is not. Did we expect God to shove 2000 years – or even longer if you want to start with the Decalogue – of cultural advancement down our throats in a day?
We don’t get mad at Jesus for not giving us penicillin; but we get mad at Him for not ending slavery. Yet, He did, albeit it took 1800 years or so for His teaching to be influential in those regions that followed, more or less, His word. Slavery continues to exist elsewhere today…but, no – we don’t get mad about that either. We get mad that Jesus didn’t end it 2000 years ago – and only in regions that professed to follow Jesus.
I think about child sacrifice: How could God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? What of child sacrifice elsewhere? Apparently, it was found in Aztec culture (14th – 16th centuries); Inca culture (13th – 16th centuries); the classic period of the Mayan culture (3rd – 10th centuries); Carthage (around the time of Christ); pre-Islamic Arabia; and, apparently, ongoing even today in parts of Africa.
God stopped Abraham (sometime in the second millennium BC), and yet God is ignored for stopping it and instead is blamed for commanding it.
Anyway, sorry for the diversion. Returning to my thoughts on Chesterton: not only is it impossible to differentiate good and evil without a standard, it is impossible to identify it without relying on tradition and an agreement that this tradition is not to be messed with willy-nilly.
So, maybe this wasn’t a diversion. Without the Judeo-Christian tradition (and here, I find an example where “Judeo,” at least as it is understood from the Old Testament, is appropriately included), child sacrifice continued for thousands of years elsewhere in the world. And we know slavery continued – and continues – elsewhere as well.
As Alexander Solzhenitsyn offered:
The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts.
What will guide that line, move it one way or another? If we rely only on ourselves, we are lost. Those before us have learned the benefit of removing evil from our lives – not that we can perform perfectly, but that we understand the benefit of the standard. One lifetime is not enough time to learn these lessons.
Witness the child sacrifice that happens daily today. Abortion is performed as a child sacrifice to a better life for the mother and father. Maybe, a thousand years from now, God will be blamed for this as well.
Facts vs. Narrative
A page of statistics, a plan of model dwellings, anything which is rational, is always difficult for the lay mind. But the thing which is irrational any one can understand. That is why religion came so early into the world and spread so far, while science came so late into the world and has not spread at all.
If it wasn’t obvious before, can it be denied today – right now, with both the corona and the pretext for the riots – that we live in a fact-free world? OK, maybe it actually was possible that greed first appeared in the human condition in 2008, or that three planes could take down two buildings, or the Japanese bombed us while we were just minding our own business. Oh yeah, and one bullet ricocheted throughout that car in Dallas.
But today? Tell a good story, and everyone will stay home from work and school, and wear masks when they risk being seen in public. Tell a good story, and one black life will matter more than the dozens or hundreds of others killed every day in ways that are too politically-incorrect to mention.
History unanimously attests the fact that it is only mysticism which stands the smallest chance of being understanded of the people.
Isn’t this obvious by now?
Common sense has to be kept as an esoteric secret in the dark temple of culture.
Which comes back to my first point. Without common sense kept in the culture, we are left with mysticism. Facts (science / scienticism) without tradition will not win the day; a good (or bad, but well-accepted) narrative will beat it every time.
Our Inherited Tradition
The truth is that the tradition of Christianity (which is still the only coherent ethic of Europe) rests on two or three paradoxes or mysteries which can easily be impugned in argument and as easily justified in life.
Chesterton wrote these words more than 100 years ago, after Nietzsche’s infamous proclamation of the death of God, but before the start of the Great War. Of course, Christianity remains the only coherent ethic in the West; in fact, it is a bastardized form of the ethic that is used to bash Christianity itself (go back to the start of this post; witness the undeserved bashing of God on child sacrifice and slavery).
What are these “paradoxes”?
One of them, for instance, is the paradox of hope or faith—that the more hopeless is the situation the more hopeful must be the man.
Another is the paradox of charity or chivalry that the weaker a thing is the more it should be respected, that the more indefensible a thing is the more it should appeal to us for a certain kind of defence.
Try resolving these issues, making sense of these, understanding how to act in the real world based on these paradoxes, in one lifetime, independent of – and even resentful of – any tradition handed down to you. You cannot. Yet, it need be done if we are to live in a society where good and evil can be understood.
Now, one of these very practical and working mysteries in the Christian tradition, and one which the Roman Catholic Church, as I say, has done her best work in singling out, is the conception of the sinfulness of pride.
As Chesterton offers, pride sucks the joy out of life. How much joy of life is destroyed daily by the pride shown in those who are considered exemplars of the modern culture – the culture that despises tradition?
The pride of news anchors, the pride of entertainers, the pride of athletes, the pride of most politicians and political mouthpieces. Their message is not one of hope, it is one of hate.
And hate sucks the joy out of life.