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G.K. Chesterton: The Common Murmur Against Monogamy

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I was reading a little ditty on lust the other day by Douglas Wilson, in which he produced this quote by Chesterton. I simply could not pass it up. To say that it stunned and arrested me would not be exaggeration. I have often felt this way about my own wife and marriage.

I could never mix in the common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restriction on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself. To be allowed, like Endymion, to make love to the moon and then to complain that Jupiter kept his own moons in a harem seemed to me (bred on fairy tales like Endymion’s) a vulgar anti-climax. Keeping to one woman is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could only be married once was like complaining that I had only been born once. It was incommensurate with the terrible excitement of which one was talking. It showed, not an exaggerated sensibility to sex, but a curious insensibility to it. A man is a fool who complains that he cannot enter Eden by five gates at once.

We are told in ten thousand different ways that choosing the faithful marriage bed is boring and dull. Men need pornography to keep things interesting, they say. We’re “wired that way.” Fornicating in the back seat of a Volkswagon in the hull of the Titanic, now that’s hot! Yet as Chesterton knew, this sensibility was due to a shriveled and lamed capacity for joy and thrill, not the other way round. No one, to my knowledge, has described the fruits of marital fidelity with this much sass. Such fidelity, with its bounds and “restrictions” is where the merriment is found, where the children play freely in the streets, as it were. The sexual angst so characteristic of our liberated cityscapes is the train that has broken loose from its tracks, the stormy barge untethered from its pier, the river that has jumped its banks, bringing destruction in its wake.

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

July 15, 2013 at 8:22 pm

G.K. Chesterton: Man Does Not Evolve from Barbaric to Civilized

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The dawn of history reveals a humanity already civilised. ~ ch. 3, The Everlasting Man: “The Antiquity of Civilisation”

g-k-chesterton1Chesterton continues to give us a glimpse into “the creature called man,” and then into “the man called Christ.” Thus, he remains in his “sketch of the main adventure of the human race in so far as it remained heathen.” He is trying to put to rest the notion that mankind moves from a primitive, barbaric state to an “advanced” civilised one. According to Chesterton, what we find when we look at ancient ruins are not only civilisations, but perhaps civilisations “already old.” He chooses to focus on Egypt and Babylon, and then the Mediterranean world, as representative of ancient man’s civilized state.

First, Chesterton dispenses with the common myth that all primitive governments were “despotic and tyrannical.” Indeed, they may have been despotic, but all signs point rather to despotism and tyranny cropping up in more advanced societies, even “tired democracies.” He writes: “As fatigue falls on a community, the citizens are less inclined for that eternal vigilance which has truly been called the price of liberty; and they prefer to arm only one single sentinel to watch the city while they sleep.” People often stand aghast at Nazi Germany, wondering how such an advanced and highly educated society could embrace such barbarism. I can’t help but think that Chesterton has gotten at something of it in his analysis here, and it is interesting to ponder what Chesterton might have thought of Europe in the 1930s and 40s, had he lived that long. At any rate, Chesterton concludes that “[i]t is far more probable that a primitive society was something like a pure democracy,” for “[d]emocracy is a thing which is always breaking down through the complexity of civilisation.” This is certainly my read on what is going on in the U.S. right now.

Chesterton says that it is nothing but pretension to suppose that we can “trace everything in a consistent course from the amoeba to the anthropoid and from the anthropoid to the agnostic.” What we find instead is that barbarism and civilisation “existed side-by-side,” as they continue to do today. There are nomads today who apparently like their nomadism and desire to retain it; and there were non-nomads back then, who equally liked their stationary status. “The chronological rearrangement of” the nomad and the farmer, as though one evolved inexorably into the other, “is but a mark of that mania for progressive stages that has largely falsified history.”

Further, Chesterton seeks to put the lie to the notion that religious people are backward and primitive, always obscurantist and resisting change and “progress.” He quips: “[A] politician once told me in debate that I was resisting modern reforms exactly as some ancient priest probably resisted the discovery of wheels. I pointed out, in reply, that it was far more likely that the ancient priest made the discovery of the wheels. It is overwhelmingly probable that the ancient priest had a great deal to do with the discovery of the art of writing.” Chesterton’s argument here cannot be made often enough. Modern man likes to act as if the society and technological advances upon which he lives somehow burst onto the scene through an exalted humanism released from the shackles of the superstition that is religion. All hail, Renaissance Man, for bequeathing us all that is good, or so we’re told.

It’s also interesting to note how Chesterton’s thinking here applies to our supposed understanding of Muslim terrorists, they all being “stone age,” “backward,” and jealous of our modern life. They are angry at us because our “advanced,” secular, nihilistic, technocratic societies “work.” Indeed, the West prospers, unlike the Old-Testament-like barbarian societies within Islamic fundamentalism. The claim is, as Chesterton puts it, “the vulgar assumption that terrorism can only come at the beginning and cannot come at the end” of civilisation. They “hate us” because we’re at “the end” and they are “at the beginning,” or so the trope goes. Yet I wonder how “stone aged” those men were who hijacked our airliners on 9/11. Did they believe they had to strike at us because we are civilisationally superior to them? Did they foreswear all modern accoutrements? Moreover, it is an open question whether the supposedly “tolerant, liberal, democratic, advanced” society has the virility to endure the onslaught of those more “primitive” societies of which religious fundamentalists are supposedly a part. Indeed, Chesterton ponders whether the enslavement of other human beings which is no doubt coming in the future (protestations of slavery’s extinction in “the West” notwithstanding) might be a good deal worse that the slaveries of the past.

From Egypt and Babylon, Chesterton moves on the juggernaut of the Mediterranean world, noting that “[i]f the world becomes pagan and perishes, the last man left alive would do well to quote the Iliad and die.” Yet the apex comes from one place in particular, which “shone like the shield of Hector, defying Asia and Africa; till the light of a new day was loosened, with the rushing of the eagles and the coming of the name; the name that came like a thunderclap when the world woke to Rome.”

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

June 23, 2013 at 5:54 pm

Chesterton: The History of Prehistoric Man

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g-k-chesterton1Chesterton called this notion “the sort of unreason in which only rationalists are allowed to indulge.” See The Everlasting Man, ch. 2, “Professors and Prehistoric Men.” The difficult thing – difficult for me, at least – in writing about Chesterton is that he says so many brilliant things with great humor and wit, that all I want to do is quote him, which would amount simply to copying down each page. Merely summarizing his work won’t do, for the way he writes about things is perhaps more important than what he writes about. Nevertheless, I’ll try to pass along a few highlights from this chapter.

Chesterton continues his discussion of how anthropologist talk about “prehistoric man,” as though they had some actual historical evidence to go on. It gets rather hilarious when he skewers scientists for going on and on about the life of some prehistoric creatures, of whom we only have “one scrap of bone.” This “bone” is the scientist’s “weapon and his only weapon. He often wields it with a fanaticism far in excess of anything shown by men of science when they can collect more facts from experience and even add new facts by experiment. Sometimes the professor with his bone becomes almost as dangerous as a dog with his bone. And the dog at least does not deduce a theory from it, proving that mankind is going to the dogs – or that it came from them.” Here Chesterton is putting his finger on the arrogance of “scientific” claims that are based on little to no evidence. Imagine what he would say today, when the scientistic worldview is in full hubris. It does no good to say that the scientific enterprise should stick to the modest claims of which it is truly capable, for scientism’s religious fervor cannot abide such modesty, nor was it meant to. Man totalizes his religions claims. It’s the image of God within us.

Chesterton wants to know what we can deduce from the fact that prehistoric men drew reindeer. Perhaps we should deduce that they “may possibly have found it easier to draw reindeers than to draw religion.” But to conclude that such men had no religion because they drew reindeer is preposterous. Science wants to have it both ways. If the ancients drew reindeer, say the anthropologists, it proves that man was unconcerned with religion back then because he didn’t draw something more profound. Yet if the prehistoric men drew nothing, the scientist concludes that man was unconcerned with religion because he didn’t draw at all. To which Chesterton says, “The truth is that all this guesswork has nothing to do with anything. It is not half such a good parlour game as shooting arrows at a carved reindeer, for it is shooting them into the air.” Belly laugh follows.

Where is Chesterton going with all this? I think he is trying to build the case that mankind has always been unique because he has always been a spiritual being in God’s image. That is, we cannot explain the rise of religion by arguing that mankind was responding to “religious forms.” For religion to come about in man, man “needed a certain sort of mind to see that there was anything mystical about the dreams or the dead, as it needed a particular sort of mind to see that there was anything poetical about the skylark or the spring. That mind was presumably what we call the human mind, very much as it exists today.” It’s logically possible that cows and dogs could get religion someday, says Chesterton, “but all that instinct for the probable, which we call common sense, must long ago have told us that the animals are not to all appearance evolving in that sense; and that, to say the least, we are not likely to have any personal evidence of their passing from the animal experience to the human experiments.” Thus, Chesterton concludes that “a transition had occurred to which bones and stones cannot in their nature bear witness; and man became a living soul.”

Two realities confirm this for Chesterton: 1) Original sin, and 2) human families. He only begins his discussion of these in this chapter, but the uniqueness of the human family unit holds great evidentiary weight for Chesterton in seeing humankind as special and different in kind from the animals.

-D

Written by Michael Duenes

June 6, 2013 at 7:16 pm