Last Thursday we looked at what led up to Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox” (1933), G.K. Chesterton’s final word in the literary debate he carried on with R.H. Tawney, the socialist/New Christian author of The Acquisitive Society (1920) and Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926).
It was not the final word on the subject, of course, or the problem would not still be with us today, pervading every aspect of religious, civil, and family life. It was, however, the last that Chesterton had to say on this subject, at least in book form. It is therefore both appropriate as well as useful to take a look at what he said.
|Tawney: Why argue when a sneer will do?|
In Saint Francis of Assisi (1923), Chesterton had warned of the danger of the “new things” that were undermining and replacing Christianity with “Christian” socialism. As if on cue, in his effort to refute Chesterton and prove that New Christian (i.e., socialist) principles were right and those of outdated mainline, orthodox Christianity were wrong, in his book, Religion and the Rise of Capitalism (1926), R.H. Tawney simply reasserted all the old socialist-New Christian quasi arguments without bothering to do anything except ridicule traditional religion and get a dig or two in at Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc.
Rather than give in to the sort of tit-for-tat exchange of insults at which the Fabians and other socialists excelled, however, Chesterton decided to give reason and common sense another try. And who better to lead the way than St. Thomas Aquinas, whose insistence on the first principle of reason — that nothing can both be and not be at the same time under the same conditions — had been the subject of Fulton Sheen’s first book, to which Chesterton wrote the Introduction, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy (1925)?
This is nothing against Chesterton’s earlier work on St. Francis, but the little volume on Aquinas is a much more profound piece. This is easy to understand.
In Saint Francis of Assisi, Chesterton had looked at an issue that seemed straightforward. This was how exaggerating a single principle — care for the poor (or anything else) — no matter how important, and subordinating everything, even truth itself, to that single principle leads straight to betrayal of the Church, heresy, even the total destruction of Christianity . . . to say nothing of paving the way straight to totalitarianism.
|Aquinas: To argue is human, to sneer is swine.|
In Saint Thomas Aquinas, Chesterton was faced with a much more difficult task. Where in Saint Francis of Assisi he had explained what needed to be refuted, he now took it upon himself to explain how to refute it — after a fashion.
Clearly, however, it would not be sufficient or even effective to present the same philosophical arguments all over again as to why you can’t set aside or redefine the natural law to get what you want. Fulton Sheen had done that brilliantly in God and Intelligence and Religion Without God (1928), and had been either completely ignored or egregiously misunderstood. Even Pope Pius XI’s inspired 1931 encyclical refuting religious socialism, Quadragesimo Anno, had been “reinterpreted” as an endorsement of the very things it condemned.
No, just reiterating the arguments would do little good, as Chesterton knew full well (and as this writer has discovered). First of all, he was no philosopher, especially on the level at which Fulton Sheen, Ronald Knox, or Pius XI operated. It would take years to reach the degree of understanding of the Thomist arguments that Sheen, Knox, Pius XI, and others brought to the table to refute the New Christian-socialist claims.
What Chesterton could do, however, was try and teach people the basic principles of how to argue, fairly and effectively . . . which was something entirely lacking in both of Tawney’s books. Sneers abounded, of course, but there was little or no actual argument.
|"I am the monarch of the sea / Only no one knows but me!"|
Being a good journalist, however, Chesterton couldn’t just leap into his presentation. He had to avoid the temptation of letting readers know (for example) “that Admiral Banks has been shot, which is the first intimation we have that he has ever been born.” (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Francis of Assisi. New York: Image Books, 1957, 19.) That is, he had to give a little background on Aquinas, if only so that his readers would know who this "Dumb Ox" of a person was.
It was, in fact, not until Chesterton was two-fifths into the book that he got around to introducing his main subject. This was how to think and argue effectively, which he began discussing in Chapter III: “The Aristotelian Revolution.”
Chesterton’s goal was to give people the intellectual tools they needed to develop their own arguments and refute the New Christian-socialist errors on their own, not give them half-understood or garbled arguments. He therefore only had to begin by showing the error people needed to refute. This was the “error behind the error” of New Christianity-socialism: the wrong idea of man, and thus of God, that resulted in such treason.
Not that Chesterton came flat out and said it that way. Instead, he gave two examples, one which twisted the supernatural, and the other, the natural: “Astrology sprawls over the Sunday papers, and the other doctrine has its hundredth form in what is called Communism; or the Soul of the Hive.” (G.K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The “Dumb Ox”. New York: Image Books, 1956, 79.)
|Eliphas Lévi, Neo-Catholic Materialist Magician|
Astrology assumes that human beings are at the mercy of spiritual or astral forces they cannot control; that what you are and what happens to you is somehow determined by what star or planet you’re born under (or something like that). It denies free will, and thus the sovereignty of the human person under God. (“Magic” as defined by the Neo-Catholic Eliphas Lévi is a way to manipulate these forces, the astral or inner light, to reach higher states of consciousness; see Chesterton’s comments about the “inner light” in Orthodoxy, 1908; cf. E.F. Schumacher’s “New Age” concept of different truths at different levels of consciousness in A Guide for the Perplexed, 1977.)
The “Soul of the Hive” is a much more subtle and far more dangerous treachery. How many people actually believe in astrology is difficult to determine, but most people in the United States today seem to reject it out of hand. A somewhat equivocal survey as recently as 2012 said that half of Americans reject it outright, while many of the rest don’t take it seriously.
This is ironic, for the “Soul of the Hive” — the idea that the abstraction of the collective created by man is sovereign while human beings created by God are not — is, in a very real sense, the “natural” version of astrology (explaining the natural affinity of socialism and the Occult noted by Dr. Julian Strube), and has seized almost total control of the way most people think these days. After all, the belief that individuals are at the mercy of impersonal forces radiating from the stars is no more ridiculous (or any more believable) than that individual human beings only have such rights as the collective gives them. Astrology and collectivism are, in that sense, the supernatural and the natural sides of the same counterfeit coin.
As a result, Chesterton was fully aware that both the social and religious teachings of the Church were and remain under constant assault, both from treachery from within, and hatred from without the Church . . . and that the most deadly attacks came from that treason inside the Church itself. As Chesterton described it,
This error then had many forms; but especially, like nearly every error, it had two forms, a fiercer one which was outside the Church and attacking the Church, and a subtler one which was inside the Church and corrupting the Church. There has never been a time when the Church was not torn between that invasion and that treason. (Ibid., 108.)#30#