Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Sh*! Chesterton Says

Elliot Milco has stirred the pot over at First Things with a brief post entitled Against Chesterton Quotations:
I was wandering through Facebook and noticed a quote by G.K. Chesterton at the top of someone’s profile. The quote was exceptionally stupid. And I thought to myself, So many people repeat these little quips, and so many of them are awful. So I decided to start a collection. I made it through the first two pages (of sixteen) devoted to Chesterton on a popular quotation website. Here are a few of the stupidities I found...
Milco then proceeds to highlight a number of Chesterton quotes and voice objections against them. Some of these are, I will admit, a bit of a stretch. For instance:
“Love means to love that which is unlovable; or it is no virtue at all.”

Love means to love what is worthy of love; everything else is vice.
It strikes me that both Chesterton and Milco are, arguably, saying something quite valid in their opposing quips. And while it's possible to take Chesterton wrong -- taking "unlovable" in a more literal sense to mean something which really ought not to be loved (say: cruelty) -- I think it's moderately clear that his quip is meant to be taken more or less as a brief restatement of what Christ says in the Sermon on the Mount:
But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same?
Nonetheless, I think he scores some fairly direct hits on Chestertonian tropes. Some of these are evocative but poorly reasoned on Chesterton's part. For example:
“People wonder why the novel is the most popular form of literature; people wonder why it is read more than books of science or books of metaphysics. The reason is very simple; it is merely that the novel is more true than they are.”

By this logic, the works of E.L. James must be extremely true.
Certainly, fiction can convey truth in a very compelling way. However, let's be honest, the fact that something sells a lot is not proof that it is more true (as Milco points out in his response) and furthermore I don't think it's really the case that people read novels because they are "more true" than non-fiction. When people choose novels over non-fiction, I think they usually do so because novels are more fun than non-fiction. (These days non-fiction actually sells more than fiction does, but I don't know if Chesterton's factual claim was correct then or not.)
“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.”

Poets go mad quite often, and they seem much more frequently to end up totally absorbed in their own creative “genius” and independence than chess players. Maybe the fault is in imagination and not in logic. Or maybe the idea of ascribing some intrinsic danger to either of these faculties is idiotic.
Chesterton's little fantasy that it is ordered thinkers who go mad and fantasists who are sane is one that comes up frequently in The Man Who Was Thursday, a novel which I enjoy for unrelated reasons. However, although it is, like many of Chesterton's ideas, evocative in a way, it's also a deeply unrealistic conceit. Order is not something that leads one away from truth and from God. God is ordered. From these quotes one could almost imagine Chesterton is endorsing the clearly foolish idea that God and reason are opposed, were it not that one knows Chesterton elsewhere attacks that idea with equal charm, as in the Father Brown story in which Father Brown immediately detects the thief dressed as a bishop because the thief denounces reason. Moreover, the conceit rests on something to which Chesterton quotes too often seem to owe their being: a completely made up fact. The one thing that makes this forgivable is that I rather doubt Chesterton himself thought it was clearly known and true that mathematicians and chess players go mad more often than poets and artists -- he just said it because he thought it illustrated an interesting idea regardless of its factual accuracy. The problem is, I'm not sure that the many people who throw this quote and ones like it around realize this.

Chesterton is a good writer, and I enjoy some of his works very much (mostly his fiction.) He is also very skilled at forming memorably paradoxical quips which contain a certain degree of truth. This is great, so long as one values Chesterton for what he is rather than what he is not. The problem is when his quips and paradoxes are imbued with a nearly scriptural authority, a weight they were never designed to bear. While he can be very good and thought provoking light reading, Chesterton was not a rigorous philosopher or theologian, and since his specialty was paradox there is the difficulty that many of his most memorable sayings are, while surprisingly true, also (by the nature of paradox) half wrong.

Because Chesterton quotes are so memorably clever, they are too often are taken out of context and thrown around as if one need merely quote something clever Chesterton said and the issue has been settled. If only to combat this frequent misuse (though also to underline some of Homer's more awkward nods) Milco's exercise, however cheeky, strikes me as a needed corrective.

To indulge in a bit of Chestertonian paradox: The problem with too many internet Chestertonians they take Chesterton too seriously -- becoming like his madly logical clerk or chess player in rigorously applying some superficially applicable Chesterton quote to each situation. Milco's tilt at the Chestertonian windmill is, perhaps, the more Chestertonian exercise.


Enbrethiliel said...


My problem has always been loving Chesterton while not being able to stand other people who do. It's like going to a concert of your favourite band and wishing the rabble around you would just shut up. =P

(Yes, I know about the three fingers rule. LOL!)

mrsdarwin said...

I often think that gentlemen like Chesterton or Tolkien would not actually be very impressed with those who are their biggest fans.

GeekLady said...

Although I agree with the substance of that essay, that Chesterton is carelessly overquoted, I thought the essay itself was a little disingenuous. It laid the blame on Chesterton's style, instead of the careless quoters, and ignored basic structure of his writing. Chesterton started with a paradox, but he usually followed with a point - the paradox was never the point, or intended to be. Heck, sometimes the point commonly pulled out of a paragraph isn't the actual point. It's entirely fair to argue with the point (and he had some doozies), but arguing with the paradox is just silly.

BettyDuffy said...

Back in my day...before the internet... no one quoted Chesterton. And anyone daring to quote any writer as a means of greeting or personal motto before engaging in relationship was probably not going to go far in that relationship.

I think a lot of this Chesterton quoting comes about with the modern concept of personal branding. Every page (facebook, blog, other) is a business card, or means of introduction to the personal brand, and so quoting Chesterton (or Mary Oliver... what have you) on the header, becomes a sort of shorthand for the product or person you're about to encounter.


Joe said...

The problem with dissing paradox and calling it half wrong is that Jesus makes paradoxical statements as does the Church, with her emphasis on "both...and" approach.

Darwin said...

Well, I certainly don't totally reject paradox. I just think it has limits, which Chesterton in his enthusiasm didn't always abide by. This doesn't mean he shouldn't have used them so much as that someone as prolific and enthusiastic in his writing as Chesterton was bound to stumble sometimes.

My first thought on "Jesus makes paradoxical statements as does the Church" would be that the statements Jesus makes which are sometimes called paradoxes are not paradoxes in the same way as the ones that Chesterton was fond of. So, for instance, when Jesus says, "The first shall be last and the last shall be first" or "Blessed are the poor" he's not saying things that at first seem weird, but when you look at them sideways you realize they encapsulate some truth you hadn't previously thought of, he's saying something which states a truth pretty clearly -- it's just not a truth that fits with our natural preferences.

Belfry Bat said...

Any quotation of The Man Who Was Thursday must remember that its subtitle is a Nightmare. It furthermore doesn't hurt to remember that what Chesterton actually writes against isn't reason, but the displacement of awe by reason or, to be more evocative, cogitolatry. It's also helpful to recall that Chesterton's "poets" aren't people who are incapable of or disinterested in thinking, but people who think playfully, and also that they do seem all of them to go mad at some point, if only for want of true beliefs to reason from.

Voila mes deux ¢.

Margaret M said...

When Chesterton said that people with overactive reason tend to go mad, I know exactly what he's talking about. There are people who think, and think, and think, and think through things over and over again, trying so hard to be rational, struggling to arrange everything so that it is 100% logical and beating everything out with their intellect until they want to scream and are filled with despair.

I have had this problem myself. It turned out to be caused by obsessive-compulsive disorder. I think this kind of over-thinking is what he was talking about, not people who like order and reason and try to employ them. (After all, Chesterton was clearly an advocate of reason!)

I can testify that this impulse to make everything make perfect logical sense is so strong that it gave me occasional urges to leave the Church or worship the devil. I got help, but I can easily see that someone who did not get help or who had it worse than I did or who did not have the Church to lean on could go insane. He/she would probably have to have more problems than just OCD, though.