Monday, October 12, 2015

Three Key Books on Common Sense, II: The Mystic Paradox of G.K. Chesterton


Perhaps this posting should have been titled “The Tragedy of G.K. Chesterton,” but in our opinion he’d prefer the paradox.  After all, it’s not his tragedy, but that of his latter day followers.  For all their enthusiasm (vide the upcoming postings on Msgr. Ronald Knox), most neo-Chestertonians seem to insist that Chesterton actually stood for many of the things he opposed, e.g., false mysticism, Fabian socialism, theosophy . . . and utter nonsense.

Madame Blavatsky, New Age progenitor.
Or maybe irony is a better word.  The so-called “Apostle of Common Sense” has been used to justify all manner of things that utterly defy his presumed apostolate.

Take mysticism, for example.  At one point before he converted to Christianity, Chesterton flirted with spiritism and similar pseudo-religio-scientific tripe.  His and his brother Cecil’s adventures with a Ouija Board make for entertaining reading . . . once you set aside the fact that such things are either stupid and a complete waste of time, or there’s something to them and they’re incredibly dangerous.

Fortunately, Chesterton was not impressed with the theosophists.  These were (and are) adherents of the fantastic theories plagiarized by Madame Blavatsky in her two books, Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888).  Theosophical beliefs form the core of what became known as “the New Age Movement,” and have had a deleterious effect on Catholic social teaching and the understanding of the natural law.

Chesterton described theosophists as having “shiny pebbly eyes and patient smiles.”  They had and have (of course) a firm conviction that they alone possess an enlightened truth that moves them up the scale of raised consciousness to the status of gods.  The satanist Aleister Crowley and Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger were members of the Theosophical Society.

Marshall McLuhan, Medium and Message.
Part of the problem is that Chesterton was, in fact, something of a mystic.  This, however, was not in the sense many of his latter day followers desperately want to believe to justify their own aberrations. (Marshall McLuhan, “GK Chesterton: A Practical Mystic,” Dalhousie Review, 1936, 15.4, 455-464.)

Chesterton believed that mysticism enlightens, it does not obscure; it is specific and concrete, not vague.  It does not give special knowledge to a gnostic élite that is hidden from the unenlightened.  As he said,

“[Waite] is enslaved by the one great fallacy of the mystics, that mysticism, religion and poetry have to do with the abstract.  Thinkers of Mr. Waite’s school have a tendency to believe that the concrete is the symbol of the abstract.  The truth, the truth at the root of all true mysticism, is quite the other way.” (G.K. Chesterton: The Speaker, May 31, 1902.)

“Waite” was Arthur Edward Waite (1857-1942), an American born British occultist and mystic.  He is best known as the co-developer of the Rider-Waite Tarot Deck and author of Key to the Tarot.  (London: Rider and Co., 1910.)

A socialist is a socialist, but a good cigar is a smoke.
The “tendency to believe that the concrete is the symbol of the abstract” is an example of the triumph of the will over the intellect, or faith over reason, e.g., that the collective has rights that the people who form the collective do not have.  Major Douglas based social credit on an argument from the abstract to the particular (Douglas, “Prologue,” Brief for the Prosecution), as did the agrarian socialist Henry George (Henry George, Progress and Poverty.  New York: The Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1935, 338).

What really turned off Chesterton, however, is the blithe assumption such mystics have of their superiority over ordinary, unenlightened people.  This leads them to believe that they have the solution to all the world’s problems if others were just enlightened enough to realize it, and that they are somehow empowered and authorized to enforce God’s law (or their personal understanding of it) on the rest of the human race.  Thus, as Chesterton related in his autobiography,

The shiny pebbly eyes of Aleister Crowley.
When I disliked Theosophy I had no Theology.  Perhaps I did not dislike Theosophy, but only Theosophists. It is certainly true, I am afraid, whatever the failure in charity, that I did dislike some Theosophists.  But I did not dislike them because they had erroneous doctrines, when I myself had no doctrines; or because they had no claim to be Christians, when in fact they would have claimed Christianity, among other things, much more confidently than I could myself.  I disliked them because they had shiny pebbly eyes and patient smiles. (G.K. Chesterton, Autobiography. North Yorkshire, U.K.: House of Stratus, 2001, 93.)

There is also the problem that today’s pseudo-mystics attempt to use the mystical light as a replacement for, instead of a fulfillment or perfection of, sensation, reason, and faith to carry out the restructuring of the social order.  This is a little like trying to use an atomic bomb to drive in a carpet tack, all the while neglecting to install the carpet.  As C.S. Lewis had a fictional character explain to another character, who thought he could use mysticism to travel through time,

"Excuse me," said Lewis, speaking through his characters. . . .
“‘Excuse me,’ said Ransom.  ‘But it is funny, you know.  The idea of a man thinking he can become a saint as a minor detail in his scientific training.  You might as well imagine you could use the stairs of heaven as a short cut to the nearest tobacconist’s.  Don’t you see that long before you had reached the level of timeless experience you would have had to become so interested in something else — or, frankly, Someone Else — that you wouldn’t be bothering about time-travel?’” (C.S. Lewis, The Dark Tower and Other Stories.  New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977, 20.)

Finally, there is a serious danger in attempting to use or achieve the mystical light without first going through the preliminary stages of sensation, reason, and faith.  The greatest mystics, both east and west, have warned that untrained, un- or self-guided use of the mystical faculty, common in New Age practice, can pave the way for insanity and demonic possession.

Thus, it comes as something of a shock to find prominent neo-Chestertonians rushing headlong to embrace the sort of New Age claptrap Chesterton deprecated, to put it mildly.  One such has described E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), a reworked and whitewashed theosophy, as “a wonderful book.”  Many have become, to all intents and purposes, Fabian socialists, Fabian socialism being a blend of an expanded georgist socialism and theosophy.

Maybe “tragedy” was the right word, after all.

#30#

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