Sunday, December 2, 2007

Readings: Chesterton's ORTHODOXY

I've been greatly enjoying my reading of G. K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy. His aphoristic style is a joy in itself, regardless of whether or not you agree with everything he says. I've had occasion, as I've slowly read this beautiful book, to quote from it in the comment boxes of other blogs. An excerpt from Orthodoxy used in my previous post (which provides the requisite links), elicited an appreciation from a new reader, who is also a fan of Chesterton. For all of these reasons, I thought that I would just post a few more excerpts from this great book, and sit back to see if anybody who happens to come across them is inspired to make any pertinent comments:

Nature:

The essence of all pantheism, evolutionism, and modern cosmic religion is really in this proposition: that Nature is our mother. Unfortunately, if you regard Nature as a mother, you discover that she is a step-mother. The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same Father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.
(On a personal note, as an only child, I was particularly moved by this.)

Conservatism:

We have remarked that one reason offered for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow better. But the only real reason for being a progressive is that things naturally tend to grow worse. The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution.

The Rich:

Christianity even when watered down is hot enough to boil all modern society to rags. The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world. For the whole modern world is absolutely based on the assumption, not that the rich are necessary (which is tenable), but that the rich are trustworthy, which (for a Christian) is not tenable. ...The whole case for Christianity is that a man who is dependent upon the luxuries of this life is a corrupt man, spritually corrupt, politically corrupt, financially corrupt. There is one thing that Christ and all the Christian saints have said with a sort of savage monotony. They have said simply that to be rich is to be in peculiar danger of moral wreck. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice. It is not demonstrably un-Christian to crown the rich as convenient rulers of society. It is not certainly un-Christian to rebel against the rich or to submit to the rich. But it is quite certainly un-Christian to trust the rich, to regard the rich as more morally safe than the poor. ...For it is a part of Christian dogma that any man in any rank may take bribes.

Tell it like it is, G.K.

25 comments:

An Interested Party said...

Oh my goodness! Who knew Chesterton was such a flaming socialist, commie bastard!? And to think that he has even been written about favorably in such places as National Review Online!? What were they thinking...

LYL said...

Actually, anon, GKC was highly antipathetic to socialism as a solution to the problems raised by capitalism. He was a distributist, which certainly advocates the right to private property - even the necessity - but also favours the well distributed Means of Production, such that every family can provide for themselves. No socialist he! But he hated the high concentration of wealth in the hands of a mere few.

In that he agreed 100% with the social teaching of the Church.

Rodak said...

I have always been struck by the fact that Acts tells us that the earliest Christians on record were not only socialists, but, in effect, communists. And they were strict about that to the point of persons being struck dead for holding a part of their personal wealth from the Church.
Modern communism should be anathema to modern Christians, then, only to the extent that it is ideologically atheistic, as well as communistic.
Or, so it would seem?
As Chesterton says above:
The mere minimum of the Church would be a deadly ultimatum to the world.

Tom said...

I have always been struck by the fact that Acts tells us that the earliest Christians on record were not only socialists, but, in effect, communists.

Me too, and we're both wrong.

The earliest Christians weren't an organized polity, nor were they advocates of a particular political system. They weren't comrades, they were brothers and sisters.

Rodak said...

Tom--
I meant only that their mode of living was evidently communal, and that they pooled their material resources. I used the word "communist" in reaction to the word "socialist" used by another commenter. I didn't mean to suggest that "communism" was a political orientation of the first Christians. I don't know that they had a political orientation, for that matter. (?)

Rodak said...

Tom--
Actually, I just quickly reviewed the opening chapter of Acts, chapters 4 and 5 in particular. It seems pretty clear that there was already a hierarchy in place, headed by the apostles, who were in turn headed by Peter; that they had rules regarding private ownenship (not allowable) and an organized distribution network. They also ate together, which would indicate some kind of organized food collective. I would say that putting this all together, it can be at least broadly defined as a "polity."
That said, I wish that I had used a word like "communalism" (if there is such a word), rather than communism, because of its unavoidable negative connotations.

Tom said...

I suspect you're reading too much into Acts.

Of course I wasn't there, so what do I know, but in particular to say that "private ownenship" was "not allowable" seems to contradict the text, e.g. Peter's statement to Ananias, "While it [Ananias's land] remained unsold, did it not remain yours?"

As I read it, private ownership was allowable, but unthinkable in the face of need. The sin of Ananias and Sapphira lay, not in keeping some of their profit, but in falsely saying they were giving it all to the Church. ("You have lied not to human beings, but to God.")

In any case, the communalism described here doesn't seem to have lasted long, and as far as I know nothing is written later on about prescribing it. That certainly doesn't mean the spirit of charity it reflects was a temporary thing; I'd say, instead, that circumstances altered the best way to express that charity.

Rodak said...

Tom--
"While it [Ananias's land] remained unsold, did it not remain yours?"

I think that what Peter means there is "Since you owned it all, when you owned, why haven't you given all of the proceeds of its sale to the community?"

It may well be that circumstances altered the best way--or, at least, the most possible way to enact charity. But it seems clear from Acts that the Rock, the Apostles, and the members of the first congregations, took literally Christ's admonition to "sell all you own and give it to the poor."
You might think that there would have been something written later on contramanding it, if it wasn't to continue as a prescribed way of life. To the extent that it wasn't coerced, it seems to me like simple backsliding from the initial enthusiasm. They might not have been so quick to write that up.

John DaFiesole said...

You might think that there would have been something written later on contramanding it, if it wasn't to continue as a prescribed way of life.

Not if, when they started writing things down, it wasn't a prescribed way of life.

Rodak said...

"...it wasn't a prescribed way of life."

Since I've never seen any evidence of that (a prescribed lifestyle), I'll take your word for it. It would be interesting, however, to know more about why they changed, since, presumably, it was Peter himself who was instrumental in organizing that which we have a sketch of in the Acts of the Apostles.

An Interested Party said...

Rob, this is off topic, but I'm wondering if you've seen this? I thought it might be of interest to you...

Rodak said...

AIP--
Thanks. I do find that interesting. I think that the man's thesis is spot-on. I've been watching for signs of something like he's talking about emerging, and haven't seen much yet.
But the Pope just issued a new encyclical on hope...

LYL said...

Sorry, AIP, I seem to have referred to you as "anon." I think I was pushed for time. Sorry.

Rodak, I would say the early Christians as spoken of in Acts were behaving much as a voluntary religious community does these days. The main difference is that such communities, while they may have definite rules etc, are entered into voluntarily. Not so with communism. Which is why socialism as a political/economic concept is so dangerous.

The teaching of the Catholic Church is quite clear on this matter; people should have the right to private property (except if they voluntarily give it up for the sake of the Gospel) and to amass enough wealth to serve the legitimate needs (not necessarily "wants") of their families.

While voluntarily giving to the poor is good and taxation at *reasonable* levels is seen as a fair way to try to ensure that innocents (eg children) do not go hungry etc, no State has the right to take people's earnings/work from them.

Socialism is seen by the Catholic Church as completely unacceptable as is unfettered Capitalism. There are other economic systems and have been historically. Capitalism and socialism are both historically "new things" (cf Pope Leo XIII's encyclical "Rerum Novarum" - "the new things.")

Rodak said...

LYL--
I think that if you'll take the long view of it, you'll see that while the first Christians entered into it voluntarily, there came a time when it was no longer voluntary (consider the Inquisition). Now it's been voluntary again, for some time.
The first socialists to take power also entered into it voluntarily, with fairly wide public support. Institutions tend to calcify, and lose their original zeal and even some of their principles.
I'm not comparing the Church to Communism, but I'm just saying...

Do you read Tom's (John daFiesole--same guy) blog, btw? It's a must.

"The teaching of the Catholic Church is quite clear on this matter; people should have the right to private property (except if they voluntarily give it up for the sake of the Gospel)"

It's not clear from Acts, however, that this was originally the case.
Apparently you couldn't decide to hold some back, lest you be struck dead.
In a democracy, the government has the right to do what the elected representatives of the people legislate that it should do. The people have the right, should they be displeased, to elect different legislators who will legislatively express the will of the people who have elected them. That said, all institutions are resistant to change; that is the downside of the internal integrity which keeps them from falling apart almost as soon as they've been constructed.
You have to take the good with the bad, as they say.

Tom said...

It's not clear from Acts, however, that this was originally the case.

Even more: it's not clear from Acts just exactly what was originally the case. We have a couple of general descriptions of what the first Christians did, and a few somewhat detailed stories, but any proposal about where the lines fell between "voluntary," "expected," and "required" involves has to be based chiefly on guesswork.

Tom said...

I think that if you'll take the long view of it, you'll see that while the first Christians entered into it voluntarily, there came a time when it was no longer voluntary (consider the Inquisition).

I'm not sure what the Inquisition (Roman? Spanish? Holy Office of?) has to do with whether Christians voluntarily entered into religious communities. Certainly we don't need to consider something as late-in-the-day, or as fraught, as "the Inquisition" to see that, whatever they were up to back in Jerusalem, some things did become required of (in some cases compelled from) Christians (e.g., harsh public penances for apostasy).

Rodak said...

"...any proposal about where the lines fell between "voluntary," "expected," and "required" involves has to be based chiefly on guesswork."

I'd say that it fell chiefly on accepting as true the incident involving Ananias and his wife. Also, Acts hits the communalism of the community pretty hard. There are at least three explicit references to it in the first five chapters, I think. And I also think that those references specifically mention the disposition of property, in addition to the share of meals and worship services. It seems that divestment of private property must have been an important feature of early Christian life, as Peter directed the first Church.

"I'm not sure what the Inquisition (Roman? Spanish? Holy Office of?) has to do with whether Christians voluntarily entered into religious communities."

By the time of, say, the Spanish Inquisition, being Christian in that society was no longer voluntary, it was mandatory. One not only had to fulfil certain requirements to be a Christian; one had to be a Christian to live in Spain.

Tom said...

I'd say that it fell chiefly on accepting as true the incident involving Ananias and his wife.

We've already demonstrated that there's more than one way to interpret the incident involving Ananias and his wife. You say they were slain because they kept some of their profit, I say because they lied in saying they turned over the full amount.

So it's just begging the question to say you know what precepts the first Christians followed based on accepting that story as true.

By the time of, say, the Spanish Inquisition, being Christian in that society was no longer voluntary, it was mandatory.

Ferdinand wasn't Pope, Isabella wasn't the Grand Inquisitor, and nobody forced anybody to get baptized.

Again, my point isn't that no one has ever been compelled to join the Church (I can't think offhand of an example of the Magisterium (as opposed to a secular ruler or maybe a local bishop) mandating it for the non-baptized, but I'm no expert), but that "the Inquisition" is the wrong bugaboo to invoke.

Rodak said...

"I say because they lied in saying they turned over the full amount."

Doesn't this assume, in any event, that they were required to turn over the full amount?

"Ferdinand wasn't Pope, Isabella wasn't the Grand Inquisitor, and nobody forced anybody to get baptized."

No, but they killed or expelled you, if you wouldn't.
That said, I'll gladly accept your much superior knowledge of Church history, and ask that you provide a bugaboo more suitable to my point.

EdMcGon said...

Just commenting on the original post:

Regarding nature, Chesterton is a fool to think of mankind as somehow equal with nature. If true, there would never be any natural disasters.

On conservatism, he is overly simplistic. While I agree we need to review why we do things as a society/culture, and (to use his imagery) sometimes we need to tear out the post completely (rather than just paint it), to change things simply because "that is what we do" is a recipe for disaster.

On the rich, can he be any more off-base from Christian doctrine? When Christ said "Love thy neighbor", he didn't exclude the rich. While I agree with Chesterton on the trust aspect, when you remove the double negatives from his statements, he says, "It is demonstrably Christian to kill the rich as violators of definable justice."

Rodak said...

Ed--
As an orthodox Christian, Chesterton believed that Man was given that which allowed man to confront Nature from a position of strength. It's not that Nature never overcomes Man, but that Man does not need to obey Nature, as do animals, vegetation, etc.
With regard to conservatism, I think that he is spot-on. There is nothing in the material world that does not decay if it is merely left as it is. The constant flux that provides a context around any given thing will see to that.
As for the rich, he says what you quote, by which he means that it isn't automatically un-Christian to kill the rich in pursuit of justice, if that's what it takes. He also says that it isn't demostrably un-Christian not to kill them. His point is that they should not--simply because their riches give them power--be blindly obeyed. This seems particularly true to me. Our government is made up largely of millionaires, isn't it? And this is no coincidence.

An Interested Party said...

Oh, Rob...you do realize that anyone who criticizes conservatives and/or the rich is a fool who can't be taken seriously...

Rodak said...

AIP--
What amazes me is the number of times I've had "Saint" G.K. Chesterton quoted against me, to disprove some "liberal" comment I've made.
But, then, when I turn around and quote Chesterton against a conservative talking point, it turns out that he was just a clown and a buffoon, all along.
(It's all part of the cognitive dissonance I keep on harping about.)

EdMcGon said...

Rodak,
I doubt I've ever quoted Chesterton to you, since I'm not that familiar with him.

It's not that Nature never overcomes Man, but that Man does not need to obey Nature, as do animals, vegetation, etc.

So when he says "nature", he is actually referring to instinct, not ALL of nature?

With regard to conservatism, I think that he is spot-on. There is nothing in the material world that does not decay if it is merely left as it is. The constant flux that provides a context around any given thing will see to that.

If only making changes in society were as easy as a paint job. In truth, it is more like a medical procedure. When you perform a medical procedure, you have to consider what will happen to the patient as a whole after you are done.

In society, when we make changes, we have to consider the ramifications of any changes we make. For example, welfare was a good idea on the surface, but it also resulted in welfare dependency for a large portion of those it was supposed to help.

His point is that they should not--simply because their riches give them power--be blindly obeyed.

WHO should be blindly obeyed? Aside from my wife, I can't think of anyone. ;)

Seriously though, why point out the rich? Would you blindly obey the poor?

Our government is made up largely of millionaires, isn't it? And this is no coincidence.

You're right. Successful people do tend to be millionaires. Ain't capitalism wonderful? :)

Rodak said...

Ed--
Check out your comment of 12/15/07 at 10:16 a.m. on this thread. That's what I was referring to.
As for "instinct" I don't know that clouds and vegetables possess it. All of nature behaves as it was designed to behave. Only Man, because of free will and intellect, is able to modify his way of living, and sometimes even Nature itself.
Why the rich? you ask. Because so often people DO obey the rich. He is merely pointing out that there is no necessary correlation between riches and morality.