Sunday, January 6, 2013

Heretics and Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton

Source of book: I own both of these. 
Date originally published on Facebook:  October 29, 2010

These two books are essentially a matched set, although Heretics was originally intended to be a stand alone work. After Heretics was published in 1905, a number of Chesterton’s philosophical opponents stated that it was all very well for Chesterton to argue against their philosophies, but another thing altogether for him to write a convincing philosophy of his own. As Chesterton stated in his introduction to the ensuing Orthodoxy (1908), “It was perhaps an incautious suggestion to make to a person only too ready to write books upon the feeblest provocation.”

I read the books in reverse order, starting with Orthodoxy because I was interested in it, only to realize later that I needed to read both. Thus, I finished the one, then the other, and now write my review of the both of them together.

Chesterton is one of my favorite authors, and has been since I first read a Father Brown story in 9th grade. I special ordered the complete Father Brown stories while in high school, and have slowly collected a number of other works. However, I had never read any of his non-fiction at this point.
These two books have a theme which ties together the individual parts. Heretics was originally conceived as a series of essays about specific individuals and their associated philosophy. Orthodoxy was Chesterton’s account of his own journey to embrace Christianity. This being Chesterton, Orthodoxy is about as far from an autobiography as can be imagined, while completely subversive in its attempt to explain his philosophy.
Chesterton is unique among authors for his use of paradox combined with a truly larger than life personality. He resembles in many ways, an overgrown toddler bombastically dominating whatever room he happens to find himself in. I would link him with Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt in this sense – all were almost aggressively alive, vibrant, and absolutely convinced of the rightness of their opinions. Dinner with any of the above would be a truly unforgettable occasion.

In light of this personality, Chesterton’s statement of his intent in writing Orthodoxy reveals the fundamental point of both of these books: Truth matters. A person’s view of (to borrow from Douglas Addams) Life, the Universe, and Everything matters; and matters more than anything else. In our modern times, we fight over taxes, minor political details, and types of trees to be planted; but we ignore death, basic notions of humanity, and the other big questions that philosophers throughout the ages debated. As Chesterton put it, these days everything matters, except Everything.

The terms used as titles in these books are of great importance to Chesterton, and he persuasively argues for a return to the original and correct meanings. In history and in fact, orthodoxy means right thinking, ultimate truth. In its modern use, it tends to refer to an antiquated idea, something that is, in fact, wrong. Likewise, a heretic was not called so because he opposed the majority. He was called so because he was viewed as being in error. The issue for Chesterton is that we be right, not that we follow the fad of rejecting anything that is old, established, or religious. The point is to determine truth.

Chesterton clearly believed in absolute truth. He also argues forcefully that everyone else does too, whatever they might claim. In his view, we all hold certain things to be absolute truth, but we have held them so long that we no longer notice that they form the framework for everything else in our lives.
 In seeking to find truth, Chesterton states his requirements for a satisfactory answer.

 "[T]he thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems to have desired. If a man says that extinction is better than existence or a blank existence better than variety and adventure, then he is not one of the ordinary people to whom I am talking. If a man prefers nothing I can give him nothing…We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable. It is this achievement of my creed that I shall chiefly pursue in these pages."
To this end, Chesterton spends a significant portion of both books showing how much of “modern” philosophy seeks to put a limit on imagination and wonder.

Perhaps the most profound statement is this: “Truly worldly people never understand even the world; they rely altogether on a few cynical maxims which are not true.” To grasp the truth of this, one only need look at the philosophy that has created the recently bubbles first in technology stocks and then in real estate. Conventional wisdom of those pursuing gain in each case was not only wrong, but obviously wrong. However, to those involved, it seemed as if human nature and indeed the nature of the world had changed because they or their particular field was somehow different.

It would be fun to go through each chapter and comment on each point in turn. This would take far too many pages, and would at best be a pale imitation on my part of the original.

Suffice it to say that Chesterton is at every turn both unexpected, and compelling. There is attraction in the challenging of truisms, and of the bold use of paradox to illustrate that much of what we assume is total bunk, repeated because everyone else says it.

I will mention specifically the argument that so-called “freedom” from the concept of absolute truth is in itself both contradictory and limiting. It is contradictory in that a denial of absolute truth is in itself a claim that truth either absolutely does not exist, or that it absolutely cannot be known. It is limiting in that it grants the freedom to do anything, except to set boundaries. Chesterton through a variety of examples is able to show that it is precisely boundaries – that is, truth - that gives variety and adventure to life.
Another strong point is Chesterton’s refutation of the idea that all religions are alike in message, but differ in form and ritual. Rather, they resemble each other substantially in form, but differ, and differ greatly, in message. This could consume an essay on my part that would exceed the usual limit for briefs, but is perhaps the greatest example of a maxim which is patently untrue.

I also want to mention that Heretics does an excellent job of deconstructing much of the popular intellectual fads of the late nineteenth century, from the concept of the noble savage to the myth of the yellow press.
 In conclusion (which means nothing coming from a lawyer), these books put a completely different perspective on many issues that are often argued from the same stale perspectives. It also is an inspiration to those of us who wish to view life as an adventure, and who know deep down that there is no adventure without a designed universe – only despair. If Everything doesn’t matter, nothing really matters.

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