Saturday, August 7, 2010

The Wisdom of G. K. Chesterton, pt. 1

Because of the overwhelming number of quotes that I wanted to share from G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy, I feel it prudent to split this up into multiple entries. Here are some quotes from the early portion of the book that I found thought-provoking:

"What could be better than to have all the fun of discovering South Africa without the disgusting necessity of landing there?" Which is another way of stating the problem: "How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?"

"I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it." Which is to say, "When I fancied that I stood alone I was really in the ridiculous position of being backed up by all Christendom. It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of the existing traditions of civilized religion...I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy."

Responding to the assertion that it is enough (or even noble) that a man should believe in himself: "Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Caesar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums." Moreover, "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."

"Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness."

"If it be true (as it certainly is) that a man can feel exquisite happiness in skinning a cat, then the religious philosopher can only draw one of two deductions. He must either deny the existence of God, as all atheists do; or he must deny the present union between God and man, as all Christians do. The new theologians seem to think it a highly rationalistic solution to deny the cat."

"You can make a story out of a hero among dragons; but not out of a dragon among dragons."

"Exactly what does breed insanity is reason." This is, in fact, the contention of the whole early part of the work. "This chapter is purely practical and is concerned with what actually is the chief mark and element of insanity; we may say in summary that it is reason used without root, reason in the void." This is exlpained more artfully: "The general fact is simple. Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite...The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits." From which he concludes, "The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason."

This one is almost painful for me to think about with too much effort: "...a small circle is quite as infinite as a large circle; but, though it is quite as infinite, it is not so large."

Discussing the simplicity, all-sufficiency, and distasteful of materialism, he writes, "Take first the more obvious case of materialism. As an explanation of the world, materialism has a sort of insane simplicity. It has just the quality of the madman's argument; we have at once the sense of it covering everything and the sense of it leaving everything out...He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world." He continues, "For we must remember that the materialist philosophy (whether true or not) is certainly much more limiting than any religion." And concludes, "But the point here is that the normal human mind not only objects to both, but feels to both the same objection. Its approximate statement is that if the man in Hanwell is the real God, he is not much of a god. And, similarly, if the cosmos of the materialist is the real cosmos, it is not much of a cosmos. The thing has shrunk. The deity is less divine than many men; and (according to Haeckel) the whole of life is something much more grey, narrow, and trivial than many separate aspects of it. The parts seem greater than the whole."

"Mr. McCabe thinks me a slave because I am not allowed to believe in determinism. I think Mr. McCabe a slave because he is not allowed to believe in fairies." To which he adds, less amusingly, "Determinism is quite as likely to lead to cruelty as it is certain to lead to cowardice."

"The sane man knows that he has a touch of the beast, a touch of the devil, a touch of the saint, a touch of the citizen. Nay, the really sane man knows that he has a touch of the madman."

"He has always cared more for truth than for consistency." I hope this is someday said of me.

On the paradoxes of Christianity, of which I am so fond, he observes, "It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man."

"The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid...He puts the seed of dogma in a central darkness; but it branches forth in all directions with abounding natural health."

Continuing on mysticism, he compares it to the sun: "The one created thing which we cannot look at is the one thing in the light of which we look at everything. Like the sun at noonday, mysticism explains everything else by the blaze of its own victorious invisibility." Rationalism, quite the opposite, is more like the moon. "Detached intellectualism is (in the exact sense of a popular phrase) all moonshine; for it is light without heat, and it is secondary light, reflected from a dead world."

I will conclude with what I can only describe as poignant geometry. If there can be such a thing, this is it:

"Buddhism is centripetal, but Christianity is centrifugal: it breaks out. For the circle is perfect and infinite in its nature; but it is fixed for ever in its size; it can never be larger or smaller. But the cross, though it has at its heart a collision and a contradiction, can extend its four arms for ever without altering its shape. Because it has a paradox in its centre it can grow without changing. The circle returns upon itself and is bound. The cross opens its arms to the four winds; it is a signpost for free travellers."

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