Thursday, October 22, 2015

Three Key Books on Common Sense, IX: The Apostle of Common Sense


Even before he converted to Catholicism in 1922, G.K. Chesterton exhibited great concern for the modern abandonment of reason, and the consequent shift from God to man as the center of things.  This shift is best seen in the aberration called socialism and, to a lesser degree, in the distortion known as capitalism.

So many books, so little time. . . .
Chesterton’s conversion to Catholicism, however, seemed to trigger a much more profound analysis of the problem.  The books written by Chesterton that most people rank as “great” were written following his conversion.

Viewing this as objectively and as non-emotionally as possible, a number of non-Catholics have commented that the Aristotelian-Thomist-based social teachings of the Catholic Church are the most comprehensive and best-reasoned of any organized religion or philosophical school.  It would therefore make perfect sense that the focus of “the Apostle of Commonsense” would sharpen once he became a Catholic.

Did St. Francis of Assisi reinvent religion?
Thus (as we saw in yesterday’s posting), in Saint Francis of Assisi (1923), written soon after his conversion, Chesterton zeroed in on the tendency of some people, especially a particular kind of Christian, to exaggerate certain aspects of Christian teaching beyond all bounds of reason.  By basing everything on a personal interpretation of something accepted on faith as God’s Will, such Christians not only tried to change Christianity, but religion itself.  This, as we will see, is what Chesterton’s friend, Ronald Knox, examined in Enthusiasm, his study of Christian faith-based movements disconnected from the bounds of reason and claiming the direct, faith-based inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

In The Everlasting Man (1925) and the “Introduction” (technically a foreword) he wrote to Fulton Sheen’s first book, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925), Chesterton did not deviate from his goal: the restoration of reason and common sense.  He did, however, slightly shift his emphasis.  He characterized the Catholic Church to non-Catholics as the defender of reason in a world gone mad.

Hilaire Belloc being reasonable?
In The Catholic Church and Conversion (1926), Chesterton again shifted his emphasis, this time from explaining the institutional Catholic Church to non-Catholics, to explaining the individual Catholic, specifically the convert, to non-Catholics.  The point, however, remained the same: the importance of reason and common sense.  In the foreword he wrote for the book, Hilaire Belloc noted “the innumerable proofs upon which the rational basis of our religion reposes.”  (Hilaire Belloc, “Foreword” to G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950, 9.)

In Chesterton’s opinion, only in Catholicism is the fullness of truth and reason to be found, and only in Catholicism are the intellect and the will, reason and faith, or knowledge and opinion, given their proper places. As he said,

To become a Catholic is not to leave off thinking, but to learn how to think. It is so in exactly the same sense in which to recover from palsy is not to leave off moving but to learn how to move. The Catholic convert has for the first time a starting point for straight and strenuous thinking. He has for the first time a way of testing the truth in any question that he raises.  (G.K. Chesterton, The Catholic Church and Conversion. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950, 85-86.)

Fabianism v. Distributism
For some reason, however, people — especially neo-distributists and Fabian socialists — didn’t seem to catch on to the correction of distributism and the refutation of Fabian socialism.  In our opinion, of course, the slavery of past savings constitutes a grave defectus intellectus, a failure of the power to reason.  This mental blindness prevents those so enslaved from being able to understand that their attempts to circumvent the presumed necessity of past savings to finance new capital formation are contradictory and thus nonsensical and self-defeating.

More intensive efforts seemed advisable.  To his credit, Chesterton did not surrender to the great pressure put on him to conform to the demands of those attacking from outside the Church (the Fabian socialists), or those attacking from within (the followers of Msgr. John A. Ryan).  He did, however, take time to regroup and reconsider the problem.  After publishing three of his most important works in rapid succession from 1923 to 1926, he seemingly took a seven-year break from his crusade to restore reason, at least, a break from using the heavy literary artillery, possibly to let the guns cool a bit.

Bedlam: When reason and common sense are abandoned.
Looking more closely at St. Francis of Assisi, The Everlasting Man, and The Catholic Church and Conversion, we realize that Chesterton had, in every case, focused on what was happening.  A reasonable man, he clearly assumed that once people had it pointed out to them what was happening and why it was contrary to reason, they would — as rational beings — come around to the right way of thinking.

By 1926, however, it was evident that being reasonable in an unreasonable world was not going to get the job done.  This was underscored shortly afterwards in his debate with G.B. Shaw that, as we noted, came to nothing.  In reaching this conclusion — assuming that he, in fact, did so — he may have been strongly influenced by Fulton Sheen’s first and possibly greatest (but least skillfully written!) book, God and Intelligence, which focused on the modern abandonment of reason by ignoring the first principle of reason, negatively expressed as the principle (or law) of contradiction, and positively expressed as the principle (or law) of identity.

Sheen’s book may have brought Chesterton to the point where he realized that sound reasoning wouldn’t get him anywhere as long as reason itself was being rejected.  Nor was it enough simply to point out the irrationality of unreason.  Like Sheen, Chesterton seems to have realized that he had to counter the problem with the reasons that reason was being rejected — a paradox that, perhaps, only Chesterton could have appreciated in all its incredible irony.

Primus, Intellect, not Will
This may have been the genesis of what some regard as Chesterton’s single greatest (and evidently most misunderstood) accomplishment: a sketch of St. Thomas Aquinas, “the Dumb Ox of Sicily.”  Thus, in Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox” (1933), Chesterton defended the primacy of the intellect and reason as the rule in purely human, that is, natural affairs, and as the foundation of faith in supernatural affairs, against the mounting unreason and reliance on the Triumph of the Will that has characterized the modern world.

Triumph of the Will
Ironically (that word again), Chesterton published The Dumb Ox the same year Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany and established the Third Reich, what the Nazis — the word is a German acronym for National Socialism, a system with occult roots in the New Age — intended as the ultimate Triumph of the Will.

Framed as a sort of sequel to St. Francis of Assisi, The Dumb Ox is much more than that.  Paradoxically, if we want to understand the first book, we should first read the second book.  At the same time, while we should read the books in reverse order to get the most out of them, in our opinion Chesterton could not have written either had he not written St. Francis first.  In a sense, he wrote the wrong book first, but he couldn’t have done it any other way.

What resulted, however, was a ringing defense of reason and common sense that comes across as a stern warning to Chesterton’s own fans and followers.  His other books were, in large measure, efforts to explain the reasonableness of Catholicism to non-Catholics.  His task in The Dumb Ox (if our analysis is correct) was the far more difficult task of explaining the reasonableness of Catholicism to Catholics, and of common sense to the followers of the Apostle of Common Sense.

#30#

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