Russell and Duenes

Does the landlady need to know my philosophy?

with one comment

I love G.K. Chesterton, likely for the same reasons most others like him. He has a way with words and arguments that pack intellectual and spiritual power, yet also engage the reader with wit and humor. Paragraph after paragraph from Chesterton contain maxims and witticisms for the ages, and what never fails to amaze me is how insightful his words are almost a hundred years after he wrote them. Since myself writing a series of pieces on Chesterton’s Orthodoxy several years back, I haven’t had the subsequent occasion to read much of his stuff. But the other day my wife was thrilling me with the apps on her ipod, one of which allows the user to download books for free. She happened to download Chesterton’s Heretics and was reading some of it to me. We were both caught in the grip of his rhetorical power, and laughing quite a bit in the process. He explains that nowadays, being “orthodox” about anything is looked on as a liability. It’s the heretic who is celebrated. Many a modern wag would tell us, as Chesterton puts it, that…

We are more and more to discuss details in art, politics, literature. A man’s opinion on tramcars matters; his opinion on Botticelli matters; his opinion on all things does not matter. He may turn over and explore a million objects, but he must not find that strange object, the universe; for if he does he will have a… religion, and be lost. Everything matters–except everything.

So we say that it doesn’t matter what the metaphysics are of our governmental leaders, it only matters what they believe about taxes. We don’t care what our senators think is right and wrong behavior in the sexual arena, just whether they support unions. Our employees can go on and on about their ideas of a non-moral, godless, evolutionary-driven universe so long as they know how to sell mortgage-backed securities. This is sheer folly, of course, and Chesterton does not count himself among them. He writes,

But there are some people, nevertheless–and I am one of them–who
think that the most practical and important thing about a man is still
his view of the universe. We think that for a landlady considering a
lodger, it is important to know his income, but still more important to
know his philosophy. We think that for a general about to fight an
enemy, it is important to know the enemy’s numbers, but still more
important to know the enemy’s philosophy. We think the question is not
whether the theory of the cosmos affects matters, but whether in the
long run, anything else affects them. In the fifteenth century men
cross-examined and tormented a man because he preached some immoral
attitude; in the nineteenth century we feted and flattered Oscar Wilde
because he preached such an attitude, and then broke his heart in penal
servitude because he carried it out. It may be a question which of the
two methods was the more cruel; there can be no kind of question which
was the more ludicrous. The age of the Inquisition has not at least the
disgrace of having produced a society which made an idol of the very
same man for preaching the very same things which it made him a convict
for practising.

– D


Written by Michael Duenes

January 26, 2010 at 8:39 pm

One Response

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  1. I have a landlady who has never asked me about my philosophy and yet she knows. When I first moved in she was somewhat suspicious of me—I was from another country, and largely spoke another language, since her English is as flat and basic as my Dutch. But then a few weeks after I moved in I happened to be playing a piece by Corelli on the stereo when she banged on my door. Thinking I’d been playing the music too loud, I opened the door and began to apologize when she asked me about the piece, where I had found it (it’s quite rare), and could she borrow it. She had intuited something of my worldview from the music. And ever since she’s been quite nice, and even guards the door for me against visitors I don’t want to see. Chesterton was right, this time.


    January 27, 2010 at 1:21 am

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