“The modern world, when it praises its little Caesars, talks of being strong and brave: but it does not seem to see the eternal paradox involved in the conjunction of these ideas. The strong cannot be brave. Only the weak can be brave; and yet again, in practice, only those who can be brave can be trusted, in time of doubt, to be strong.…But the old hero was a being who, like Achilles, was more human than humanity itself. Nietzsche’s Superman is cold and friendless. Achilles is so foolishly fond of his friend that he slaughters armies in the agony of his bereavement. Mr. Shaw’s sad Caesar says in his desolate pride, “He who has never hoped can never despair.” The Man-God of old answers from his awful hill, “Was ever sorrow like unto my sorrow?” A great man is not a man so strong that he feels less than other men; he is a man so strong that he feels more. And when Nietszche says, “A new commandment I give to you, `be hard,'” he is really saying, “A new commandment I give to you, `be dead.'” Sensibility is the definition of life. “~GK Chesterton
The truth is, that it is quite an error to suppose that absence of definite convictions gives the mind freedom and agility. A man who believes something is ready and witty, because he has all his weapons about him. He can apply his test in an instant. The man engaged in a conflict with a man like Mr. Bernard Shaw may fancy he has ten faces; similarly a man engaged against a brilliant duellist me fancy that the sword of his foe has turned into ten swords in his hand. But this is not really because the man is playing with 10 sorts, it is because he is aiming very straight with one. Moreover, a man with a definite belief always appears bizarre, because he does not change with the world; he has climbed into a fixed star and the earth whizzes below him like a Zoe trope.
GK Chesterton, Heretics
“This: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. ‘Man’ is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than death by starvation.”
GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy.
The doctrine of divine Providence, Boethius complains, rather aggravates then solves the real problem: why is justice – certainly “poetic justice” – so unapparent in the course of events? Philosophia has two replies (which I will condense).
1. It is all justice. The good are always rewarded and the wicked always punished, by the mere fact of *being* what they are. Evil power and evil performance are the punishment of evil will, and it will be infinite since his soul is immortal (as philosophy, no less than theology, asserts). The passage looks back to Virgil’s hell whose inhabitants ausi omnes immane nefas ausoque potiti, “all purposed dreadful deeds, and got their way.”
And yet, pleads Boethius, it is very strange to see the wicked flourishing and the virtuous afflicted. Why, yes, replies philosophy;
“Everything is strange until you know the cause.”
2. That which “in the citadel of the divine simplicity” is Providence, when seen from below, mirrored in the multiplicity of time and space, is Destiny. As in a wheel, the nearer we get to the center the less motion we find, so every finite being, in proportion as he comes near to participating in the Divine (unmoving) nature, becomes less subject to Destiny, which is merely a moving image of eternal Providence. That Providence is wholly good.
We say that the wicked flourish and the innocent suffer. But we do not know who are the wicked and who are the innocent; still less what either need. All luck, seen from the center, is good and medicinal. The sort we call “bad” exercises good men and curbs bad ones – if they will take it so. Thus if only you were near the hub, if you participate in Providence more and suffer destiny less, “it lies in your own hands to make your fortune what you please”. Or, as Spencer turns this passage, “each unto himself his life may fortune”.
I was brought up a Liberal, and have always believed in democracy, in the elementary liberal doctrine of a self-governing humanity. If any one finds the phrase vague or threadbare, I can only pause for a moment to explain that the principle of democracy, as I mean it, can be stated in two propositions. The first is this: that the things common to all men are more important than the things peculiar to any men. Ordinary things are more valuable than extraordinary things; nay, they are more extraordinary. Man is something more awful than men; something more strange. The sense of the miracle of humanity itself should be always more vivid to us than any marvels of power, intellect, art, or civilization. The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature. Death is more tragic even than death by starvation. Having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.
This is the first principle of democracy: that the essential things in men are the things they hold in common, not the things they hold separately. And the second principle is merely this: that the political instinct or desire is one of these things which they hold in common. Falling in love is more poetical than dropping into poetry. The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves–the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.
Orthodoxy, GK Chesterton
In any intellectual corner of modernity can be found such a phrase as I have just read in a newspaper controversy: “Salvation, like other good things, must not come from outside.” To call a spiritual thing external and not internal is the chief mode of modernist excommunication. But if our subject of study is mediæval and not modern, we must pit against this apparent platitude the very opposite idea. We must put ourselves in the posture of men who thought that almost every good thing came from outside–like good news. I confess that I am not impartial in my sympathies here; and that the newspaper phrase I quoted strikes me as a blunder about the very nature of life. I do not, in my private capacity, believe that a baby gets his best physical food by sucking his thumb; nor that a man gets his best moral food by sucking his soul, and denying its dependence on God or other good things. I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.
GK Chesterton, A Short History of England, Chapter 6
Pindar stood with his chorus on the dancing floor. The stern poet
Uttered his dark glory. Light as a flight of tumbling birds
Was the dipping and soaring of his syllables and the wheeling maze.
Demure as virgins, young men of noble houses, trained and severe,
Strongly as if it were a battle and resolutely danced his ode;
Their faces rigid, but their limbs and garments flowed like water.
‘Unless a god in secret helps the work, trouble and skill
Are unavailing; the laborious plodder’s wages are oblivion,
For a soul’s weight is born with her. My wisdom is the birth of heaven;
In heaven itself the everlasting gods dare not begin
A feast or dance without the favour and assent of the grave Charities.
‘For gods and men are of one stock and came of the same womb
Though an utter separation is between them, and we are nothing
While their unshakable, eternal floor is the firmament of bronze.
They look down; they behold the isle of Delos far below,
Set like a star amid the deep-blue world’s level expanse.
‘But we are tethered to Hope that will promise anything without blushing,
And the flowering water of foreknowledge is far away beyond our reach.
Therefore neither ashore nor in the hollow ships will any praise
Be given to an act on which the doer does not stake his life.
(At Pindus the glory of the Dorian spear burst into flower.)
And we live for a day. What are we? What are we not? A man
Is a dream about a shadow. Only when a brightness falls from heaven
Can human splendour expand and glow and mortal days grow soft.
’Not even to Kadmos though a peer for Gods, not to the Aiakid
Peleus, was there allowed a perfect, whole, unslippery life;
Though these were fortunate, men say, beyond all human bounds
And heard the gold-drown’d Muses singing on their marriage day.
Over the mountain and to seven-gated Thebes the song
Drew near when deep-dark-eyed Harmonia became Kadmos’ bride,
And Peleus took the Nereid Thetis, and had gods for guests.
He also had sorrow afterwards for Achilles’ sake, his son,
And Kadmos, weeping for his daughter; even though the Father of the skies
Had lain in Semele’s desired bed and white embrace.
’Take the god’s favor when it comes. Now from one quarter, now
From another, the wing’d weathers ride above us. Not for long,
If it grows heavy with goodness, will fortune remain good.
‘Once over Lerna a shower of snow turned into flakes of gold;
Once, following the doe of the Pleiades whose horns were charactered with gold,
Herakles hunted far beyond the Ister till he found
A land that lies at the other side of the North Wind. And he stood
Gazing upon the trees of that country; he was struck with sweet desire.
But do not therefore imagine that ever you, by land or sea,
Will find the miraculous road into the Hyperborean place.
Of unattainable longings sour is the fruit; grinding madness.
‘Bless’d is the man who does not enter into the grave, the hollow earth,
Before he has seen at Eleusis the acts unspeakable which show
The end and new beginning of our life, the divine gift.
Some find the road that leads beyond the tower of Kronos, and the isles
Where no one labours, no one bruises the flower of his white hand
Wounding with spade or oar the parsimonious earth or bitter sea.
Golden are the flowers they pick for garlands in the righteous wood.
‘But the voice of the Pierides is hateful to all the enemies of Zeus,
And the melody that makes drowsy with delight the eagle on his scepter
Is torture to those who lie in Tartaros. Hundred-headed Tyhpon
Struggles in anguish as he hears it, vomiting lava and smoke.’
The heaven-descended nobles of the pure Dorian blood,
Not thinking they understood him, but silent in reverence for the god
And for the stern poet, heard him and understood it all.
Tears stood in their eyes because of the beauty of the young men who danced.
– CS Lewis