The truth is that the tradition of Christianity (which is still the only coherent ethic of Europe) rests on two or three paradoxes or mysteries which can easily be impugned in argument and as easily justified in life. One of them, for instance, is the paradox of hope or faith– that the more hopeless is the situation the more hopeful must be the man. Stevenson understood this, and consequently Mr. Moore cannot understand Stevenson. Another is the paradox of charity or chivalry that the weaker a thing is the more it should be respected, that the more indefensible a thing is the more it should appeal to us for a certain kind of defence. Thackeray understood this, and therefore Mr. Moore does not understand Thackeray.
Now, one of these very practical and working mysteries in the Christian tradition, and one which the Roman Catholic Church, as I say, has done her best work in singling out, is the conception of the sinfulness of pride. Pride is a weakness in the character; it dries up laughter, it dries up wonder, it dries up chivalry and energy. The Christian tradition understands this; therefore Mr. Moore does not understand the Christian tradition.
For the truth is much stranger even than it appears in the formal doctrine of the sin of pride. It is not only true that humility is a much wiser and more vigorous thing than pride. It is also true that vanity is a much wiser and more vigorous thing than pride. Vanity is social–it is almost a kind of comradeship; pride is solitary and uncivilized. Vanity is active; it desires the applause of infinite multitudes; pride is passive, desiring only the applause of one person, which it already has. Vanity is humorous, and can enjoy the joke even of itself; pride is dull, and cannot even smile. And the whole of this difference is the difference between Stevenson and Mr. George Moore, who, as he informs us, has “brushed Stevenson aside.” I do not know where he has been brushed to, but wherever it is I fancy he is having a good time, because he had the wisdom to be vain, and not proud. Stevenson had a windy vanity; Mr. Moore has a dusty egoism. Hence Stevenson could amuse himself as well as us with his vanity; while the richest effects of Mr. Moore’s absurdity are hidden from his eyes.
If we compare this solemn folly with the happy folly with which Stevenson belauds his own books and berates his own critics, we shall not find it difficult to guess why it is that Stevenson at least found a final philosophy of some sort to live by, while Mr. Moore is always walking the world looking for a new one.
Stevenson had found that the secret of life lies in laughter and humility. Self is the gorgon. Vanity sees it in the mirror of other men and lives. Pride studies it for itself and is turned to stone.
GK Chesterton, Heretics, The Moods of Mr. George Moore
I have recently been reading Nancy Carpentier Brown’s book, The Woman Who Was Chesterton, and an interesting pair of poems caught my attention. The poems highlight some of the differences between Gilbert and Frances Chesterton, and I enjoyed seeing the contrast, and the glimpse of their relationship the poems provided. The first poem was written by Gilbert, to his wife, after what seems like a faux pas on Gilbert’s part. Introducing the poem, brown says: “He describes her as calm, reasonable, wise, and thoughtful; while he himself is a wild, swaggering fool:
The House of Charity
I know that Wisdom is throned among you –
Our Lady of laurels, Our Lady of scrolls.
You take heed of your ways and ponder –
The choosing of roads, the weighing of souls
In the new calm air of the age of reason
I swagger foolishly unafraid
With one poor tune amid all your music,
The tinkling tune of a man and a maid.
Ye that are wise – ye are also pitiful
Though I have smitten you – you can smile,
Thus I have walked from the womb of my mother
Never reeking of ditch or stile.1
Waste it is in the well-laid garden
When into its boundaries breaks the sea
But the old wild ocean hath one law only –
Ponder a little: and pardon me.
Ah, love, I love in the old plain fashion,
With the old god’s curse on this coward’s head.
Heeds any eyes less bright than the dearest
Hears any words out of lips less red.
I sinned: I fell: and all about me
Is darkness: Can you forgive me, dear?
I loved old Love to ride with banners
And blow the trumpet and shake the spear.
I lie in the wreck of my own strange folly
With a faint, fierce hope – that far within
In the shade of your face may be God’s own secret
A hidden smile and a pardoned sin.
GK Chesterton 2
Apparently Chesterton was forgiven, and he and Frances were happily married shortly afterward. But things had not been easy on a personal side for Frances; her sister had recently passed. Not long afterward, her brother is found drowned.3 Brown says:
“Once again, intense suffering flooded into Frances’s life, and she struggled to understand. She felt suddenly lost, floundering, not knowing how to handle yet another family crisis. Inconsistent with her usual response, Frances consulted with a medium in an attempt to contact the spirits of her dead brother and sister. Why did she do this? She wanted to know where they were. She needed assurance: were they at peace or not? In heaven or not? Whatever she saw in the glass ball made her scream. Gilbert wrote a poem, “The Crystal.”
I saw it; low she lay as one in dreams,
And round that holy hair, round and beyond
My Frances, my inviolable, screamed
The scandal of the dead men’s demi-monde.
Close to that face, a window into heaven,
Close to the hair’s brown surf of broken waves
I saw the idiot faces of the ghosts
That are the fungus, not the flower, of graves.
You whom the pinewoods robed in sun and shade
You who were sceptered with thistle’s bloom,
God’s thunder! What have you to do with these
The lying crystal and the darkened room.
Leave the weird queens that find the sun too strong,
To mope and cower beneath Druidic trees,
The still, sweet gardens of the dastard’s dream,
God’s thunder! What have you to do with these?
Low fields and shining lie in in crystal-land
Peace and strange pleasure: wonder-lands untrod,
But not plain words, nor love of open things,
Truth, nor strong laughter, nor the fear of God.
I will not look: I am a child of earth,
I see the sun and wood, the sea, and grass.
I only saw one spirit. She is there
Staring for spirits in a lump of glass. 4
In The Crystal, Chesterton is clearly chiding Frances for going about things the wrong way, and for looking for answers in the darkness of dead crystal balls and mediums, instead of in the light of a living and good God. (Man desiring and seeking the gods that “got things done” was an idea he explores to more depth in other works, like The Everlasting Man.5)
In the light of these two poems, there seemed to glow a quiet and natural portrait of the traits and strengths of a woman, and of a man – at least of the man and woman who shared the name of Chesterton. Here was a man who saw ideas with such a startling power of focus and clarity, that other things occasionally got left in the dust of his “trek for truth.” (Like his clothes, money or train tickets.) But Frances – according to Gilbert himself – also saw certain things clearly; she was “wise and thoughtful,” while he sometime lay in the wreck of his “own strange folly.” She saw to all the forgotten things left by Gilbert, and cared lovingly for Gilbert as well. I saw what a good and beautiful thing it was that Frances had Gilbert, and that Gilbert had her; each filled a place in the other that was lacking. Perhaps it could be said they were not a perfect pair, but they came together and made a beautiful whole, and together they have blessed us all.
“I have known many happy marriages, but never a compatible one. The whole aim of marriage is to fight through and survive the instant when incompatibility becomes unquestionable. For a man and a woman, as such, are incompatible.” 6
There are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. 7
- Stile; A series of steps or rungs by means of which a person may pass over a wall or fence that remains a barrier to sheep or cattle.
- GK Chesterton, The House of Charity; Courtesy of John M. Kelly Library Rare Books, Archival & Manuscript Collections of G.K. Chesterton Microfiche Collection (Note from Nancy Carpentier Brown’s book, The Woman Who was Chesterton.)
- “Found drowned” was the polite term used in those days for suicide. G.F. Watts, the painter whom Gilbert wrote a biography of in 1904, painted “Found Drowned,” picturing a young lady, lying half out of the sea, clutching a locket in her hand (Note from Nancy Carpentier Brown’s book, The Woman Who was Chesterton.)
- GK Chesterton, The Crystal, Collected Works, vol. X
- GK Chesterton , The Everlasting Man, The War of the Gods and Demons
- GK Chesterton, What’s Wrong With the World
- GK Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare
“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”.