Wednesday, March 5, 2014

“On Facing Facts”, II: Living in the Past


In the posting of Monday of this week, we mentioned that how we meet our duties to our fellow man is irrelevant as long as the means is ethical and we get the job done.  In yesterday’s posting (Tuesday’s, if you’re keeping track), we noted that there is a slight variation on that which ends up being its exact opposite: the means is irrelevant as long as we get what we want.

Copyright free distributist image.
What brought this forcibly to mind was reading one of G. K. Chesterton’s later essays from a rather obscure collection, Avowals and Denials (1934).  We picked up this volume, a first edition, by the way, a little over a year ago.  Suggesting just how well known it is, the price (including shipping from England) was less than $10.  It was in near-perfect condition.

Since the volume contained material as fully quotable as Chesterton’s earlier writings, the only reason we can come up with to account for its sinking into near oblivion is that, possibly, it makes latter day Chestertonians and neo-distributists a trifle . . . uneasy.  Uncomfortable, perhaps.

The Original Deep, Fat Friar
After all, a significant amount of what Chesterton wrote after 1933 and his publication of his sketch of Aquinas (Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”) could be taken as warnings to his own disciples and followers to ease up on the sanctimonious arrogance and exhibit a trifle more common sense and fidelity to truth.

This possibility was suggested by a couple of lines in the essay, “On Facing Facts” (Avowals and Denials: A Book of Essays.  London: Methuen & Co., 1934, 182-188).  One of the facts that Chesterton believed people should face was that it is impossible to live in the future or even in the present, only the past, for it’s really the only thing we actually know anything about:

“[N]obody knows anything about any living thing in the future, except what he chooses to make up, by his own imagination, out of what he regrets in the past or what he desires in the present.” (p. 182.)

Chesterton then commented that one of the problems with Englishmen of the 1930s was that they really weren’t all that aware of the past they were living in.  They tended to hearken back to times about which they knew very little, and ignored the immediate past that had formed the present: “The most dangerous gap in general knowledge is the gap in the minds of most men about what happened to their own fathers.  They often know rather more about what happened to their grandfathers, and much more about what happened to their great-grandfathers.” (p. 183.)

Happy, carefree peasants
This sounds a great deal like the modern distributist movement, which seeks to return to a Medieval Never-Never Land of happy, carefree peasants, small artisans, and shopkeepers, with most people (who have no idea how, or even which part of Bossie to yank to get a drink) living on three acres and a cow.  We tend to hear a great deal about how terrific the Guilds were, how the Church took care of people, how liberty isn’t all that essential, democracy has failed, the Black Death was just a wonderful thing . . . .

Fifteen minutes of flame
Okay, maybe not the Plague, but those Jews and Muslims sure knew their places, and nobody had ever even heard of a Protestant.  Just heretics, and, boy, we sure knew how to handle them back then, didn’t we!

Or not.  Quite often the neo-distributist fantasies to which we are treated not only reject the present and the immediate past, but have very little to do with what actually went on during the Middle Ages that they find so attractive.  Until they need an operation and there’s no anesthesia.

Jakob Fugger, Commercial Banker
Somehow today’s Professional Chestertonians and neo-distributists draw a veil over Chesterton’s (qualified) acceptance of modern technology — if it was broadly owned by means of what sounds very like Louis Kelso’s Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP).  Surprisingly, given their obsession with the distant past, they also ignore the fact that the Middle Ages saw the first Industrial Revolution and significant advances in financial technologies, such as the “reinvention” of commercial banking.  This freed economic growth from the slavery of past savings and made possible the rapid advances that characterized western society from the 15th century on.

This has meant that Chesterton’s followers, then and now, seem to have given in to the temptation to take what they find pleasant and attractive as well as personally expedient from anything Chesterton said, and ignore the uncomfortable rest — even if the truth of “the rest” is evident.  Consequently, they also reject anything from outside their chosen frame of reference or that contradicts or differs from the carefully selected, or even invented “facts” with which they support their position.

#30#

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