Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Choice Chesterton

One of the many books I'm working my way through right now is Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton. He's worming his way into my affections, and I suspect by the time I'm done with this book, he'll be one of my favorite authors. I expected this to happen as soon as I picked up a book by him, but I didn't fall in love with his writing right away. The book that I'm currently reading was one which Lewis said influenced him to become a Christian, and because of that, I thought I would love it instantly. There wasn't instant chemistry however, to stretch the analogy further, but as I slowly spend more time with GKC, I'm becoming a big fan.

He's definitely a great thinker, but at times I feel he allows pithy comments to overwhelm the defensibility of his point. For example, one paragraph will show what I mean:

It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad.

He's speaking about the value of legend and myth, as opposed to what is supposedly "true," the teachings of scientists. He makes a good point, but the line that "the book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad," makes me think of partisan lines used in political speeches to arouse applause from the proverbial choir: he's hearing cheers from those who already hold his view, applauding the pithiness of the line. It's not defensible to say that books are written by madmen, and he didn't need to write that to defend his point. I think he was very satisfied with the line, so kept it in. I have seen several similar moments where I have to scratch my head and say, "it ain't necessarily so."

Unfortunately, in my mind, one of the central foundations of the book is based on something that "ain't necessarily so." He makes the case in the first chapter of the book that one should really put their faith in the artist, or the storyteller, more than he should place his trust in someone who is a slave to logical thinking. He argues that creativity rarely leads to madness, but that rigid, logical thinking is the path to insanity:

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists, very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.

What bugs me about this is that Chesterton's case for Christianity is very strong, but his premise is based largely on a thesis that stems from the statement above, a thesis that isn't really defensible. History is fraught with artists who've gone mad. He uses the argument above to lead into a defense of fairy tales as telling more truths than science does, and urges a view of the world that is formed more by creativity and imagination than it is by rational thinking. I happen to agree with this view of Chesterton's, and as I read more of the book, I'm beginning to understand why his writing resonated with Lewis so profoundly. The current chapter is fantastic, entitled "The Ethics of Elfland." That fits Lewis well, but unfortunately, I feel that the book wouldn't help a modern reader find Christianity, if they were reading with a highly critical and rationalistic mind, which of course is something GKC would have railed against.

Regardless, here's one of the best passages in the book:

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.

And another passage that got several stars by it in my reading:

The sense of the miracle of humanity itself always should be more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling as any caricature.

I'll probably add more thoughts on GKC as I keep reading. If you haven't read him, give it a whirl. He's making me think about things I've never thought about, in ways I've never imagined. That's a good writer, if you ask me.

1 comment:

ali cavanaugh said...

i'm so excited to hear that you are reading chesterton...aka the apostle of common sense. there is a weekly chesterton show on EWTN if you have cable or sat. also the website is really great. it amazes me to see how pertinent his writings are in today's world.