Sunday, March 14, 2010

Gilbert K. Chesterton - 'Orthodoxy': A Book Review

In a world that has turned its collective back on the founding principles of the Christian Church, having no time or space for the man of faith, the few that still adhere to the founding Western Tradition shine all the brighter due to the ever enclosing darkness. In Orthodoxy, which constitutes the literary counterpart to his Heretics, a polemical work that strives to negate instead of affirm, Gilbert Keith Chesterton constructs a surprisingly poetic defense of Catholic doctrine; his playful wit and charming images present a wholly personal outlook on something that he finds romantic and truly fantastic, a refreshing perspective often neglected when seen through the sterile lens of merely 'intellectual' scholarship, and yet sacrifices none of its 'theological' clarity thereby.

One of the most appealing aspects of Orthodoxy is the way in which Chesterton describes the truth of what he has seen; he is perfectly poetic in explaining the poetry of Christianity. Fascinating metaphors and similes abound on every page, showing his cheerful insight by way of pictures and dramatic diagrams in a manner not unlike Scripture itself; there is seemingly nothing that Chesterton cannot find analogous to the Christian faith! Furthermore, Chesterton possesses an endearing cleverness that somehow manages to invert something supposedly self-evident into a shocking aphorism that forces the reader to re-evaluate what he presently believes, what the world believes. An example of this is found in Chesterton's explanation of what he calls the 'Eternal Revolution':

'But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption of things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must always be painting it again; that is, you must always be having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post.'

This idea of the 'Eternal Revolution' has more philosophical pertinence than it might seem at first. There is a telling quote from someone whom I do not precisely recall that goes: 'seek not the ancients; seek what they sought'. This concisely exposes the reason why mere memory and mere conservatism and 'revivalist' nonsense amounts to nothing more than confused attempts at realizing truth in our own time, which is what every such attempt ultimately boils down to. Chesterton recognizes this, and asserts that Christianity, though with fixed ideals, perpetually watches and works to paint that post again and again without rest, without leaving it to rot in stagnation.

Another essential idea expressed in these pages supposes a kind of dichotomy extant between the scientific 'factual' evidence of the ostensible workings of this world, and that of positive mythology, of a thriving and child-like imagination. Speaking in wildly benevolent and sympathetic tones, Chesterton accuses the empirical 'positivist' school of assigning abstract and meaningless 'laws' to our reality, which effectively reveal a concerted effort in reducing our genius, our faculty of imagination to a simple 'fantasy', to be indulged only in the picture books of youth. In opposing this with what he calls his 'first and last philosophy', and which he 'learnt in a nursery', Chesterton defiantly proclaims that fairy tales are 'entirely reasonable', and that 'Fairyland is nothing but the sunny country of common sense'. Although someone can really write an extensive book on such an idea, we will do our best to clarify it in a single paragraph.

Whereas those in 'Fairyland' submit to the universal reason, that some things are indeed necessary ('For instance, if the Ugly Sisters are older than Cinderella, it is (in an iron and awful sense) necessary that Cinderella is younger than the Ugly Sisters'), the 'learned men' in the 'natural realm' are busy preaching that such cosmic events such as 'dawn and death' are 'rational' and 'inevitable'. This is quite simply false according to the 'ethics of Elfland', which instead apply the standard of imagination to 'test' these so-called 'facts'. This reviewer will make a respectful bow to the author, and allow him the final word on the subject...

'They (the learned men) talked as if the fact that trees bear fruit was just as necessary as the fact that two and one trees makes three. But it is not. There is an enormous difference by the test of fairyland; which is the test of imagination. You cannot imagine two and one not making three. But you can easily imagine trees not growing fruit; you can imagine them growing golden candlesticks or tigers hanging on by the tail. These men in spectacles spoke much of a man named Newton, who was hit by an apple, and who discovered a law. But they could not be got to see the distinction between a true law, a law of reason, and the mere fact of apples falling. If the apple hit Newton's nose, Newton's nose hit the apple. That is a true necessity: because we cannot conceive of the one occurring without the other. But we can quite well conceive the apple not falling on his nose; we can fancy it flying ardently through the air to hit some other nose, of which it had a more definite dislike.'

Throughout Orthodoxy, Chesterton always reveals how each particular strand in his overall philosophy accords to the Christian doctrine. In considering the prior idea, for instance, he avers that the 'weird repetitions' that comprise scientific 'law' is a poor substitute for the imagination that envisions God continually resurrecting the Sun, the Moon,and everything in between, but that it could all conceivably end if he should ever tire of such extreme monotony. Thus is Chesterton's reasoning for the superiority of imaginative mythology in general, and Christianity in particular, when compared with the fundamentally limited theories of modern man.

As previously stated, Orthodoxy is an entirely personal account of how one's own opinions are well-met with the greater Christian Tradition, and suffers nothing by it. Quite the opposite, actually, considering how much dry academic material is being thrown our way under the pretense of it being absolute and without boundary; Orthodoxy is different in that it expressly appeals to the rigid needs of a man's intellect as well as warmly approaching the sensibilities of a man's heart without becoming overtly sentimental. Chesterton breaks the barrier in giving us a philosophy that does not merely spout off one's random contrivances, one's egotistic claims (even if the author himself admits to this), and neither does he repeat the same weary mistakes that the Western scholarly world has been making since the Middle Ages; instead, Chesterton introduces us to something veritably profound in its honesty, rigorous in its good-humoured consistency, and sincerely heartfelt in its enduring faith to something beyond all of us. To conclude with one of our favourite passages, we quote what was also the final words of Orthodoxy...

'The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up to a mountain to pray. There was something that he covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.'

Read this book online here...

Or, if you're an old curmudgeon like myself who cannot stand blobs of virtual text, buy the book here... (under $10!)

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