8/21/2013

Reading Orthodoxy: The Maniac and The Suicide of Thought

Matt Anderson and Trevin Wax are hosting a discussion of G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy over the next several weeks. Follow along here. Chapters 2-3 are this week.

I continue to be impressed by how forthright Chesterton is about his project. In the closing to chapter 3 he explains
Here I end (thank God) the first and dullest business of this book - the rough review of recent thought. After this I begin to sketch a view of life which may not interest my reader, but which, at any rate, interest me.

The Maniac

In the first part of his "rough review of recent thought", Chesterton takes up materialism. The argument, or rather the picture he paints, is of materialism as a species of insanity; in this sense:
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... it is not thinking of the real things of the earth, of fighting peoples or proud mothers, of first love or fear upon the sea.
This is something that you either find compelling or you do not; I think there is something to it. Materialism perfectly explains all the small facts of the universe but it does not at all explain the largest and most important ones: love and art, imagination and reason, who we are and what we are doing here. To the extent that it attempts to explain those things it gives dull, empty, unsatisfying answers.

The Suicide of Thought

In Chapter 3 Chesterton defends reason against the modern trends which endanger it: radical skepticism, a false humility which never asserts, and others. But it is a short section on a certain philosophy of evolutionary that I want to highlight. I think, if Chesterton had written Orthodoxy today this would be a longer section.
But if [evolution] means anything more [than that an ape turned slowly into a man], it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into.
I remember being deeply affected by a lecture of Dallas Willard's (which I can't locate now) titled roughly "Do humans have a nature?" A "nature" is a common set of characteristics that we possess just by virtue of being human; particularly (in this case) as it relates to human flourishing. Is "a human" an actual, definite thing or is it in flux, defined only by where we are in an evolutionary trajectory and by what we want to be?

Christianity claims that humans have a nature, and that God's moral law is a description of how beings such as we are can flourish in the world we live in. These are facts about what kind of thing a human is; they are walls. You may beat your head against them but you cannot get beyond them by denying their existence.

This runs counter to the popular understanding (influenced, I think, by this philosophy of evolution) that exalts the will and desires an individual chooses to identify with. If you think that lying or having sex outside of marriage, or any other violation of (say) the 10 commandments will contribute to your happiness in a deep, lasting, meaningful sense you are just wrong.

There is a modern tendency to confuse "who we are" with "what we do", and I think it stems from then same problem. If you do not have a nature, then it must be more or less accurate to associate who you are and what you do. But if your identity is wrapped up in what you do, then I can no longer disapprove of your actions without attacking your being; conversations about moral standards will get very heated and very personal very fast.

But if you have a nature, and a soul, then "who you are" is clearly separable from "what you do" and moral conversations are completely different. I can love and value and accept who you are while warning you against destructive behavior; indeed I must warn you precisely because I care about you.

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