……………………………..‘In all the winter in our woods there is no tree in glow but the holly.’
– G. K. Chesterton, Heretics 1905:50
……………………………..‘In all the winter in our woods there is no tree in glow but the holly.’
– G. K. Chesterton, Heretics 1905:50
This is by no means definitive. What it does, though, is outline the tone, momentum and edge. From which Chesterton engraved an unmistakable mark into the hard surface of arrogance and happy ignorance.
What is presented here are, in my opinion, some of the most pointed aspects of Heretics.
These points, more than any others, is why I’m growing to be as much a fan of Heretics as I am of Orthodoxy. Heretics may not introduce Chesterton’s theology as brilliantly as Orthodoxy does, in the end though it doesn’t matter. The essence is there. It is in the poetic phrases and witty criticisms
Chesterton’s thoughts on humility, nations, family, pathos, science and faith, all signify the value of this work to a contemporary audience.
‘The whole secret of the practical success of Christendom lies in the Christian humility, however imperfectly fulfilled. For with the removal of all question of merit or payment, the soul is suddenly released for incredible voyages.’ (p.34)
‘Humility is not merely too good for this world; it is too practical for this world; I had almost said it is too worldly for this world.’ (p.35)
‘It is the humble man who does the big things. It is the humble man who does the bold things.’ (p.36)
‘The worship of [human] success ends in mere mediocrity; its followers are foredoomed to become slaves and cowards.’ (p.61)
‘To the humble person, and to that humble person alone, the sun is really a sun; the sea is really a sea.’ (p.87)
‘The ultimate psychological truth, the foundation of Christianity, is that no man or woman is a hero to himself. Oliver Cromwell, according to Carlyle, was a strong man. According to Cromwell, he was a weak one.’ (p.87)
On Nations and The Family:
‘Nationality exists, and has nothing in the world to do with race.’ (p.95)
‘A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge. We can see this change, for instance, in the modern transformation of the thing called a club.’ (p.95)
‘The man or woman who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us […] It is a good thing for man or woman to live in a family in the same sense that it is a beautiful and delightful thing for a man or woman to be snowed up in a street. They are forced to realise that life is not a thing from outside, but a thing from inside.’ (p.99)
‘The one genuinely dangerous and immoral way of drinking wine is to drink it as medicine…Drink because you are happy, never because you are miserable.’ (p.53)
‘Human emotions are never hard and never gem-like; they are always dangerous, like flames, to touch or even examine.’ (p.56)
‘For a hearty laugh it is necessary to have touched the heart. I do not know why touching the heart should always be connected with the idea of touching it to compassion or a sense of distress. The heart can be touched to joy and triumph and the heart can be touched to amusement.’ (p.110)
‘Were even the Puritans Stoics? The English Puritans repressed a good deal, but even they were too English to repress their feelings.’ (p.112)
‘Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.’ (p.50)
‘Science can analyse a pork-chop, and say how much of it is phosphorus and how much is protein; but science cannot analyse any man’s wish for a pork-chop, and say how much of it is hunger, how much custom, how much nervous fancy, how much a haunting love of the beautiful. The man’s desire for the pork-chop remains literally as mystical and ethereal as his desire for heaven.’ (p.76)
’Science in the modern world has many uses; its chief use, however, is to provide long words to cover the errors of the rich. The word “kleptomania” is a vulgar example of what I mean.’ (p.91)
‘Science is always by its nurture more solemn and austere than religion.’ (p.115)
‘To use a thing in vain means to use it without use.’ (p.117)
‘In the modern world solemnity [by way of grave and verbose writers (p.118)] is the direct enemy of sincerity.’ (p.119)
‘Science means specialism, and specialism means oligarchy […] the expert is more aristocratic than the aristocrat [and] if we look at the progress of our scientific civilization we see a gradual increase everywhere of the specialist.’ (p.121)
‘A man or woman who has faith must be prepared not to be a martyr, but to be a fool.’ (p.49)
‘Whatever may be the meaning of faith; it must always mean a certainty about something we cannot prove. Thus, for instance, we believe by faith in the existence of other people.’ (p.85)
‘Faith is unfashionable, and it is customary on every side to cast against it the fact that it is a paradox (p.83). [But] Paradoxes are true(p.120) […] a paradox is not a frivolous thing, but a very serious thing; it simply means a certain defiant joy which belongs to belief. I should regard any civilization which was without a universal habit of uproarious dancing as being, from the full human point of view, a defective civilization. And I should regard any mind which had not got the habit in one form or another of uproarious thinking as being, from the full human point of view, a defective mind.’ (p.123)
Some of his criticisms aren’t as cutting to a modern reader. Such as his rebuttal to H.G Wells, F. Nietzsche, or Rudyard Kipling and the Ex-Catholic Priest, Joseph McCabe. All seem overly wordy and lack absolute clarification about the context of Chesterton’s criticisms.The modern reader is then left a little shell-shocked, having to piece together fragments of Chesterton’s commentary in order to completely understand the significance of certain criticisms. In some respects it’s like wading through a fog with only Chesterton’s humour laced voice to guide the way – step here, tread there, no wait, go back, this way, not that.
It’s this trail, however, that makes Heretics what it is: a tour of an era, high on the belle époque of pre-WW1 humanism. Chesterton isn’t out to impress anyone. This is the one endearing tone of Heretics that rises higher than the rest. Honest, sometimes humorous and broad thought encapsulates its real value. In spite of the limitations Chesterton looks towards the precipice ahead. Pointing, with pipe and pint in hand, he then resoundingly argues that the trajectory of human pride ends, not in victory, but in a tragic free-fall from a fast approaching ledge.
Chesterton, G.K. 1905 Heretics, Catholic Way Publishing
Some notes and handouts from today’s ‘God, life and the world around us’ session. This year I’ve been working our homeschool team through Luke’s historiographical accounts in The Gospel of Luke and Acts.
Today’s lesson was centred around Monday’s encounter with some content in an Usborne Reader, my ongoing journey through Chesterton’s, ‘Heretics’ and Acts 20.
It still leaves me gobsmacked when different, seemingly unrelated subjects like this align.
‘So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock-His church, purchased with His own blood – over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as elders. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore, be alert.’
– (Acts 20:28-30, NLT & ESV)
Chesterton, G.K 1905 Heretics, p.108
Mackinnon, M. 2007 Fox and The Crow, Usborne Children’s Books Usborne Publishing Ltd.
Illustrated by Rocio Mertinez
As Palmer views it, the ire against subjectivism permeates our world. This, largely, academic angst, favours the glowing promise it sees in objectivism. The problem, according to Palmer, is that objectivism by itself fails. This is because objectivism enforces detachment over and against subjective intimacy.
Palmer lays out his point clearly and with bite: objectivism is objectivity gone mad; ‘no scientist knows the world merely by holding it at arm’s length’ (Palmer, p.55) [i].
Yes. ‘Objectivism set out to put truth on firmer ground than the whims of princes and priests, and for that we can be grateful. But history is full of ironies, and one of them is the way objectivism has bred new versions of the same evils it tried to correct. Two examples come to mind: the rise of modern dictatorships and the character [capacity to kill at great remove] of modern warfare’ (Ibid, pp.53 & 54)
Chesterton’s frame around this is in his discussion on the difference between the globe-trotter and the peasant.
‘He [the globetrotter] is always breathing, an air of locality. London is a place, to be compared to Chicago; Chicago is a place, to be compared to Timbuctoo. But Timbuctoo is not a place, since there, at least, live men who regard it as the universe, and breathe, not an air of locality, but the winds of the world. The man in the saloon steamer has seen all the races of men, and he is thinking of the things that divide men— diet, dress, decorum, rings in the nose as in Africa, or in the ears as in Europe, blue paint among the ancients, or red paint among the modern Britons.’ (Heretics)[ii]
The peasant however,
‘Has seen nothing at all; but he is thinking of the things that unite men— hunger and babies, and the beauty of women, and the promise or menace of the sky.’[iii]
Chesterton paints a picture of those who have become obsessed with empirical perfectionism; those who have lost touch with their subject, ergo, also themselves and a sense of reality. What follows is Chesterton’s solemn prediction that in due time there will be an ‘inevitable war between the microscopic and the telescopic.’[iv]
It might be that the war Chesterton foresees is a battle between progressives and conservatives; one side a stranger to the other, detached from relationship; no longer respectful opponents, but the bitterest of enemies.
It’s here that Chesterton’s connection to Palmer’s objections stands out:
‘The rolling stone rolls echoing from rock to rock; but the rolling stone is dead. The moss is silent because the moss is alive.’[v]
The difference between the moss and the rolling stone is that one is alive, the other isn’t.
Which side of politics is determined to be the rolling stone or the moss is a matter for debate. It seems evident enough, though, that progressive ideology and its servants appear to be more akin to the rolling stone.
‘It is inspiriting without doubt to whizz in a motor-car round the earth, to feel Arabia as a whirl of sand or China as a flash of rice-fields. But Arabia is not a whirl of sand and China is not a flash of rice-fields. They are ancient civilizations with strange virtues buried like treasures. If we wish to understand them it must not be as tourists or inquirers, it must be with the loyalty of children and the great patience of poets. To conquer these places is to lose them. [vi]’
In other words, it’s equal with losing an appreciation for the music and mystery of the forest. Replacing it with a stoic view of the forest; its inhabitants, now catalogued, tagged and dissected, have been rendered lifeless.
The forest effectively conquered, is, as Chesterton said, the forest effectively lost.
Palmer’s and Chesterton’s themes are linked by their challenge to the worship of objectivism and blind allegiance to subjectivism. They focus attention on the dangers of preferencing one over the other.
As Palmer notes:
‘’A good case can be made that objectivism, which intended to free people from the clutches of arbitrary power, has sometimes conspired with other forces to deliver modern people into the clutches of totalitarianism. As people became convinced that objective answers to all questions were possible – and as specialists emerged who were glad to give those answers – people began to distrust their own knowledge and turn to authorities for truth. Thus the stage was set for “authorities” with a political agenda to seize power at moments of social vulnerability’ (Palmer, pp.53-54)
This is Palmer’s objection to absolute objectivity.
It gets especially relevant when raised up against slander and malicious selectivity. A selectivity that has no regard for the double standard it just created or endorsed. As long as it gets what it wants and appears morally superior by doing it.
Such as, the abuse hurled at Christians, who vote against gay marriage with a reasoned and loving “no,” and yet are berated as extremists, hater’s et.al. The double standard goes unnoticed. Christians almost every day have to tolerate the intolerant misuse of the name, Jesus Christ, in a large part of the workplace, society, and the entertainment that society sells.
Those seeking balance are quickly shamed into silence. For the progressives nothing but total, blind loyalty is accepted; all disagreement is unwelcome and usually punished. The irony is that such intolerance is of little consequence to those who pride themselves on their own stand against intolerance.
As for historical examples: consider Trotsky’s exile and later execution. Alongside Stalin’s photo shopped rewrite of Russian history, which sought to erase Trotsky in order to seal Stalin’s authority.
Both sides of the political spectrum are open to the temptation of overemphasising subjectivity or objectivity. I’m not arguing that they don’t. What I am suggesting is that Chesterton and Palmer both identify a problem when servitude to progressive ideology becomes, win-at-any-cost. Here we find the rumblings of protest against a total reliance on ‘hard science’ and the disempowering of that which is called ‘soft science.’ (Palmer, p.54)
For academics an ‘overemphasis on objectivity is engrained in technique and method.’ (Palmer)
In contrast, for non-academics, the imbalance between the objective and subjective leans more towards an overemphasis on the subjective.
Even so, the modernist ire against subjectivism favours the glowing promise they see in objectivism. Consequently, it’s impacting every part of our post-everything milieu.
Among the more recent and raw examples includes the industrial scale slaughter of unborn babies. The sole objective view justifies the violent removal of a baby from the mother’s womb. It does this by hiding facts and redefining the language, in order to further detach citizens from the truth and its reality.
If Palmer is right about the dangers of an overemphasis on objectivity, then there needs to be a balance; as in a speech that has balanced Aristotle’s logos, ethos and pathos. We are less likely to get lost, be convoluted or seem lifeless. Without this balance, we will remain worn down, detached and divided. Finding ourselves looking down the barrel towards Chesterton’s war between the telescopists and the microscopists, where through coercion rather than persuasive, reasoned debate, we are enslaved to human ideas and insecurity. Sentenced to constantly second guess ourselves and reject truths that have been proven trustworthy. This impact on our thinking affects how we vote, what we learn, who we listen to and ultimately, who we will serve.
[i] Palmer, P.J. 1998 The Courage to Teach: “A Culture Of Fear” Jossey-Bass
[ii] Chesterton, G.K. 1905 Heretics, Catholic Way Publishing
[iii] Ibid. p.24
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