The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues wander more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad.
Apologies for starting with such a long quote, but Chesterton so perfectly nails this…and, I remind myself, this more than 100 years ago. I don’t want to get into the Reformation part, however just keep in mind that Chesterton wrote this book well before becoming Catholic.
But to the part that he described perfectly: just considering the ultimate Christian virtue, that of Love. In today’s society, we are all guilty of not “loving” enough – ignoring, of course, that a major attribute of love is discipline: we discipline that which we love. Today we are to love without discipline, without even advice and counsel.
Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful.
Such humanitarians offer, in love or charity, that sin can be easily forgiven because there are no sins to commit. What would Chesterton say about the world around us today as compared to the time of his writing?
Another aspect is humility. Humility was once meant to be a restraint upon man’s arrogance. Today (100 years ago) it has moved: from the idea of ambition to the idea of conviction:
A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.
The old meaning of humility would make a man doubtful about his efforts, thereby motivating him to work harder toward the aims of which he was certain; today’s humility makes a man doubtful about that toward which he should aim, thereby removing any desire to work at all. And in this, Chesterton succinctly describes the meaning crisis that has plagued the West.
We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.
We have now reached the end of that road. Multiplication tables are a sign of white privilege. And those who stand accused of this unforgiveable sin are too mentally modest to act in defense – either of themselves or of the multiplication table.
The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.
No doubt. Two-thousand years of inherited wisdom. Or 2500 years if you want to count the Greeks, or perhaps 3500 years if you want to go back to the Ten Commandments. Our meekness on claiming this inheritance knows no bounds – meekness transformed into arrogance…or idiocy.
“Oh, but we rely on reason today!” What reason? Is every generation damned to discovering the lightbulb anew? The automobile? The wheel, for goodness’ sakes? Then why is it reasonable to damn ourselves to discovering the teachings of thousands of years when it comes to behavior? (Hint: it’s not.)
Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought.
With the result just as we have it today: an unthinking generation.
Chesterton makes a very counter-intuitive point – at least counter-intuitive to much of modernity:
The creeds and the crusades, the hierarchies and the horrible persecutions were not organized, as is ignorantly said, for the suppression of reason. They were organized for the difficult defence of reason. Man, by a blind instinct, knew that if once things were wildly questioned, reason could be questioned first.
Call the man crazy if you want, and I know not many people saw this as early as Chesterton did, but there you have it. Try to deny it when looking around today’s world. It is reasonable for a man to become a woman, or to riot, burn and loot. It is reasonable, as post-modernists have done, to deconstruct reason.
Materialism has stopped all thought – if the mind is mechanical, thought cannot be very exciting. Evolution, as it is taught to deny the reality of a creator God, destroys not God, but rationalism. God might, after all, have done things slowly; but without an ape to change to a man, there would be no man.
Without an unchangeable standard, there can be no progress. When one says “what is right in one age is wrong in another,” this is fine as long as the aim is fixed – with only the methods, perhaps, evolving over time:
If women, say, desire to be elegant, it may be that they are improved at one time by growing fatter and at another time by growing thinner. But you cannot say that they are improved by ceasing to wish to be elegant and beginning to wish to be oblong.
Chesterton also has a comment regarding pragmatists. He agrees that objective truth is not the whole matter, and that there is an authoritative need to believe things that are necessary to the human mind:
But I say that one of those necessities precisely is a belief in objective truth. The pragmatist tells a man to think what he must think and never mind the Absolute. But precisely one of the things that he must think is the Absolute.
Chesterton describes this mania of (so-called) reason in the current philosophies as a suicidal mania:
It is vain for bishops and pious bigwigs to discuss what dreadful things will happen if wild scepticism runs its course. It has run its course. It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end. It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself.
Please consider: he wrote these words before critical theory and post-modernism, before Cultural Marxism, before communism took root, even before the Great War. He saw the end during the time when many believed that the West was living its best life.
It was not the setting of the sun that he saw; citing Belloc: "Do not, I beseech you, be troubled about the increase of forces already in dissolution. You have mistaken the hour of the night: it is already morning." We have no more questions to ask; what we need are answers. And all this caused by reason run wild.
Evidence of reason run wild: we desire a world with no limits. Every need of life guaranteed, followed by the assurance of every want. Like a man wanting to become a woman – and paid for by the state; today, we want the state to keep us safe from a bug. When there is a belief in facts, there will be limits. I guess we live in the opposite: because we accept no facts, we have no limits.
You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end.
Can this be any less true for humans? We are physically, mentally, and emotionally driven to be something other than human. We will, like the unfortunate triangle, come to a lamentable end. As C. S. Lewis would write:
They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all: they are artefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.