Thursday, June 07, 2007


Timely Essays on Chesterton's Timeless Paradoxes
James V. Schall, S.J
Browsing the other day on Internet to see if I could find a copy of Tolstoy's Tales Men Live By, which someone had recommended to me, I chanced across an essay of G.K. Chesterton's about Tolstoy. It is found in the Library of the University of Virginia. I had never seen it before.
Chesterton curiously begins by telling us that the best way to understand Count Leo Tolstoy was not through his novels or his ethical views, but by observing the conduct of a Russian anarchist sect in Canada called the Doukhabors. Tolstoy, it seems, had written a famous philosophic defense of their practices. In consequence of the logic of this defense, they had let their domestic animals loose “on the ground that it is immoral to possess them or control them.”
What struck Chesterton about this strange act of “liberating” one's domestic animals was its rigid faith. This Russian anarchist faith is as fierce and practical as that of the Mahometans, who swept across Africa and Europe, shouting a single word. This single word was, no doubt, “Allah.”
It would take a fairy-tale to “imagine the Doukhabor solemnly escorting a hen to the door of the yard and bidding it a benevolent farewell as it sets out on its travels.” We can suspect that the traveling hen, suddenly out of human captivity, was soon caught and consumed by some wandering fox or wild dog. But at least, as some think, it was emancipated from immoral human beings.
Most people will think such actions as the philosophic freeing domestic animals to be merely loony. And yet this singular carrying out of what is taken to be a noble action taken in the name of liberty provides a kind of delight. “For there is only one happiness possible or conceivable under the sun, and that is enthusiasm— that strange and splendid word that has passed through so many vicissitudes, which meant, in the eighteenth century, the condition of a lunatic, and in ancient Greece, the presence of a god.”
Josef Pieper, in his Enthusiasm and the Divine Madness, sees this word, enthusiasm, in the Platonic sense of having our world open to more than nature or our own constructions. It meant the possibility that we can be visited by the gods. Ronald Knox, in his famous book, Enthusiasm, applied this term to movements that went beyond the normal, something that could undermine any social or religious order.
Chesterton, for his part, sees this freeing of one's animals to be an act of utter logical consistency, the meticulous carrying out of a principle. And this strict carrying out of a principle is not what is right about the act but what is wrong about it. Tolstoy has a “real, solid, and serious view of life.” He is his own church. He has a view of everything flowing from his first principle.
Tolstoy's basic principle, that he applies to all else, is that of the “simplification of life.” This principle governs everything we do. If something is simpler, it is better, so it is said. “When we deal with a body of opinion like this, we are dealing with an incident in the history of Europe infinitely more important than the appearance of Napoleon Bonaparte.” This position is not to denigrate the importance of Napoleon but to stress the importance of what we hold. Ideas are often more important than men, even when men and personality are important.
Already for a half century before his time, Chesterton noted something that is very common today, namely the view that religion is the origin of “fanaticism.” There is a whole literature today whose thesis is that religion causes “fanaticism.” Indeed, this is the major issue of our time, so that the taming or eliminating of religion is the way to peace. The irony of this view is, however, that getting rid of religion will not get rid of fanaticism. Scientists and politicians, Chesterton thought, are just as capable of being “fanatics” as priests, perhaps more so. The current exclusive association of religion with fanaticism obscures its relation to science and politics.
The case of Tolstoy and the Doukhnabors seems typical. “A sect of men starts with no theology at all, but with the simple doctrine that we ought to love our neighbor and use no force against him, and they end in thinking it wicked to carry a leather handbag, or to ride in a (horse-driven) cart.” What concerns Chesterton is the logic at work once certain first principles are embraced. There is nothing wrong with first principles or first things, of course, provided that they are really first and we deduce things properly from them.
Of Tolstoy, Chesterton continues, “A great modern writer who erases theology altogether, denies the validity of the Scriptures and the Churches alike, forms a purely ethical theory that love should be the instrument of reform, and ends by maintaining that we have no right to strike a man if he is torturing a child before our eyes.” This same mode of reasoning, needless to say, is behind dogmatic pacifism. Tolstoy evidently went on to hold that sex is not only immoral but also not even natural. His logic and purity ended up in eliminating the very existence of the body as a good, the Manichean position.
“Fanaticism has nothing at all to do with religion,” Chesterton affirms. The origins of fanaticism lie elsewhere and neither science nor politics nor academia is immune from it. Tolstoy was no doubt a genius. He had great faith. He lacked only one thing. “He is not a mystic and therefore he has a tendency to go mad.”
This passage recalls Chesterton's discussion of the maniac in Orthodoxy. The maniac is not a man with many ideas that tend to balance each other off in common sense. Rather he is a man with one idea according to which he sees all else in a distorted light. Tolstoy “is not a mystic; and therefore he has a tendency to go mad. Men talk of the extravagances and frenzies that have been produced by mysticism; they are a mere drop in the bucket. In the main, and from the beginning of time, mysticism has kept men sane.” It is the mystic who is open to all things, even if they seem at first not to make sense.
This passage on mysticism and logic is of great importance from another angle. Chesterton in his analysis of Aquinas showed a great interest in the variety of ordinary things, in their almost infinite capacity to arouse us to think of what is. He chastised the Augustinians and the Platonists for their withdrawal from things to contemplate the One as if they could not also find the One through particular things which after all originated in the same One.
Chesterton comes to his main point. “The thing that has driven them mad was logic.” The poets were less likely to go insane than the scientists—the “mad scientist” is a well-known character, in fact. Tolstoy was deficient in poetry. “The only thing that kept the race of men from the mad extremes of the convent and the pirate-galley, the night-club and the lethal chamber, has been mysticism—the belief that logic is misleading, and that things are not what they seem.”
In its own way, this is an amazing passage for anyone who might think that Chesterton was a mere rationalist. He was in fact a Thomist. That is, he held that logic will not save us. This limitation of logic was found in Etienne Gilson's great thesis, in his Unity of Philosophic Experience, in his analysis of Abelard. God could not be reached by logic alone, however useful and valid logic might be in its own order.
Today, we often hear it said that “fanaticism” is the consequence of religion, that science is its alternative. If I understand Chesterton's view of both the scientists and Islam, it is that “fanaticism” stems from both. But it comes not from the original mystical insight but rather from the “logic” that flows from it and subsumes all else in its wake. Scientism denies any place for revelation in its “logic.” Islam's “logic” ends up denying secondary causes or an understanding of the divinity in which diversity in the Godhead and Incarnation are impossible. The subduing of the world to Allah is a conclusion not of the mystical insight but of the logic that follows from it.
In the end, “fanaticism” is not a product of mysticism, but of logic. By looking for its causes in the wrong place, we often reveal our own “fanaticisms.” The “fanatical” concern about the religious cause of “fanaticism” has blinded us to the “fanaticisms” that stem from science itself and has caused us to misunderstand what it is within Islam that often makes it so “fanatical.”
The mad man who sets his chickens loose on the grounds that it is immoral to eat them is the maniac with one idea. The cultured purist who won't even say “merry Christmas” because it violates his logic of diversity or separation of church and state is a fanatic.
Common sense does not eschew logic as such. But it does see that at the origin of things is a reality whose ways are not our ways. This is what the mystic also sees. It is the fanatic who does not see this limitation, but chooses rather to follow the logic of his position even when it leads him to absurdity. Things are, and can be known. But likewise things “are not what they seem.” We did not create them and must be prepared to find in them more than we could imagine. Call this mysticism or true philosophy or revelation, it is what we discover when we encounter any thing that is.


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