Thursday, November 26, 2015

Enthusiasm, XI: “Ugly Monuments to the Failures of Education”


In 1908, G.K. Chesterton published what many people consider one of his four (or five) greatest books.  This was Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith, written soon after his conversion to Christianity.  He had previously flirted with socialism and theosophy, both of which were integrated into the program of the Fabian Society.

Arthur Penty: New Ager, Fabian Socialist, Fascist.
The fact that Chesterton counted many friends among the Fabians and similar groups seems to have led his followers to assume that these friends shared Chesterton’s views and beliefs — or (worse) that he shared theirs.  They appear to have assumed that people such as Arthur Penty and Eric Gill, both socialists with somewhat esoteric religious convictions, must be as good distributists and Christians as (presumably) Chesterton himself.

Nothing would be further from the truth.  Chesterton could agree with people on some things, and disagree with them on others, but all without affecting his friendship.  Like Ronald Knox (and, later, Fulton Sheen), Chesterton could have great sympathy with the sinner, even be very good friends with him (or her, as the case may be), but have absolutely no tolerance for the sin.

George Bernard Shaw, Fabian Socialist.
One area of very strong disagreement, especially with Fabian socialists such as Shaw, Penty, and Gill (who later switched to “social credit,” a form of Christian socialism), was the “enthusiastic” source of their enlightenment.  As Chesterton explained his rejection of their irrational foundation of faith,

“Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what these people call the Inner Light.  Of all horrible religions the most horrible is the worship of the god within.  Any one who knows any body knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher Thought Centre knows how it does work.  That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.  Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light; let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street, but not the god within.  Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain.  The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners.” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy: The Romance of Faith.  New York: Image Books, 1990, 76.)

Not surprisingly, given the alleged combination of philosophy and theology in theosophy, reliance on the inner light in modern religion is the same error we see in modern philosophy: the idea that everything begins with one’s self.  As Mortimer Adler described this error behind the errors:

Adler: Culpable errors are ugly monuments to the failures of education.
“How did those little errors in the beginning arise in the first place?  One answer is that something which needed to be known or understood had not yet been discovered or learned.  Such mistakes are excusable, however regrettable they may be.

“The second answer is that the errors are made as a result of culpable ignorance — ignorance of an essential point, an indispensable insight or distinction, that has already been discovered and expounded.

“It is mainly in the second way that modern philosophers have made their little errors in the beginning.  They are ugly monuments to the failures of education — failures due, on the one hand, to corruptions in the tradition of learning and, on the other hand, to an antagonistic attitude toward or even contempt for the past, for the achievements of those who have come before.” (Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes, op. cit., 194-195.)

Clearly bad philosophy — or at least bad philosophical assumptions and principles — leads to bad theology, not to mention (as William Crosskey brilliantly demonstrated) bad political and legal theory.  What is interesting is that Chesterton and Knox (and Adler) put the “blame” (if that is the right word) in the same place: Platonism.

Knox titled the final chapter in Enthusiasm, “The Philosophy of Enthusiasm.”  After a few introductory paragraphs in which he opined that enthusiasm appeared to him to be in abeyance — for the time being, anyway — Knox asked, “At what sources do they feed, these torrents which threaten, once and again, to carry off our peaceful country-side in ruin?”  As he answered his own question —

Revolt of Platonism against Aristotelianism a number one error.
“Basically it is the revolt of Platonism against the Aristotelian mise en scène [stage setting — ed.] of traditional Christianity.  The issue hangs on the question whether the Divine Fact is something given, or something to be inferred.  Your Platonist, satisfied that he has formed his notion of God without the aid of syllogisms or analogies, will divorce reason from religion.”  (Knox, Enthusiasm, op. cit., 578-579.)

Chesterton and Adler both noted the Platonic revolt against Aristotle, while Sheen put it in terms of rejecting Aquinas.  It doesn’t matter which, however, as both Aristotle and Aquinas stressed the primacy of the Intellect over the Will, and thus the necessity of both faith and reason, where for the Platonist the Will — faith — is everything, the Intellect nothing; “nothing really matters [for the Platonist] except the Divine will.” (Ibid., 579.)

The problem, however, is that reliance on one’s personal understanding of God’s Will without reference to empirical evidence or logical argument causes disagreements and contradictions to appear with an unsurprising regularity.  Employment of the intellect is anathema to the truly spiritual person who “will have God served for himself alone.” (Ibid.).  This results in two distinct types of spirituality, “one which is too generous ever to ask, and one which is too humble ever to do anything else.” (Ibid.)

Exaggerations of Augustine's thought lead to error.
Both Chesterton and Knox traced this capacity for contradiction to the philosophy of Augustine of Hippo, although putting it like that is unfair to Augustine.  As Knox pointed out (and Chesterton concurred), while there is nothing wrong with Augustine’s thought, there is a great deal wrong with exaggerations of Augustine’s thought.  As Knox said, “Exaggerated now from this angle, now from that, St. Augustine’s theology has provided, ever since, the dogmatic background of revivalism” (ibid., 580), "revivalism" being a form of enthusiasm.  As Chesterton put it,

“St. Augustine followed a natural mental evolution when he was a Platonist before he was a Manichean, and a Manichean before he was a Christian.  And it was exactly in that last association that the first faint hint, of the danger of being too Platonist, may be seen.”  (Chesterton, The Dumb Ox, op. cit., 79.)

This clear and unmistakable language makes it all the more surprising that what Chesterton called “Neo-Neo-Platonism” (ibid., 78) seems to have displaced Aristotelian-Thomism as the prevailing philosophy among neo-Chestertonians, as it has virtually everywhere among those whom Chesterton termed “moderns.”  The suspicion intrudes that, while neo-Chestertonians have certainly run their eyes over the countless pages written by Chesterton and others, they may not actually have read them in the sense Adler meant in his bestselling How to Read a Book (1940).  Instead, to all appearances, they went through the texts in search of self-affirming quotes and ideas that could be twisted all out of recognition to suit their own purposes.

#30#

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