One great complaint, I think, must stand against the modern upholders of the simple life—the simple life in all its various forms, from vegetarianism to the honorable consistency of the Doukhobors. This complaint against them stands, that they would make us simple in the unimportant things, but complex in the important things.
They would make us simple in the things that do not matter—this is, in diet, I costume, in etiquette, in economic system. But they would make us complex in the things that do matter—in philosophy, in loyalty, in spiritual acceptance, and spiritual rejection.
It does not so very much matter if a man eats a grilled tomato or a plain tomato; it does very much matter whether he eats a plain tomato with a grilled mind. The only kind of simplicity worth preserving is the simplicity of the heart, the simplicity which accepts and enjoys.
There may be a reasonable doubt as to what system preserves this; there can surely be no doubt that a system of simplicity destroys it. There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than in the man who eats grape-nuts on principle.
The chief error of these people is to be found in the very phrase to which they are most attached: “plain living and high thinking…” A man approaches, wearing sandals and simple raiment, a raw tomato held firmly in his right hand, and says, “The affections of family and country alike are hindrances to the fuller development of human love.” But the plain thinker will only answer him, with a wonder not untinged with admiration, “What a great deal of trouble you must have taken in order to feel like that…” High living will reject the tomato.
The only simplicity that matters is the simplicity of the heart. If that be gone, it be brought back by no turnips, but only by tears and terror and the fires that are not quenched. If that remain, it matter very little if a few Early Victorian armchairs remain along with it. Let us put a complex entrée into a simple old gentleman; let us not put a simple entrée into a complex old gentleman.
GK Chesterton, Heretics
Reflection – GKC’s era saw the beginning of all the great faddism about food and crank-ism about health and lifestyle which still plies a roaring trade today. Tolstoy, whose magnificent novels and stories rise far above all of that, was commonly known in England for such views on diet, austere living, along with odd notions about the evils of patriotism, property, and family feeling.
I rather suspect that Tolstoy’s literary output was less known in Chesterton’s day, at least in the English speaking world, than his philosophical views—certainly GKC would have admired them for their artistry and profound Christian spirit, but he hardly makes allusion to them in his various critiques of Tolstoyism.
I have to admit to a certain amusement at trying to blog about this passage. Madonna House is not unknown, after all, for its raw tomatoes and turnips. Grape-nuts are not on the menu so much, but oatmeal and plain yogurt are. Perhaps not so much as a matter of abstract scientific principle as of plain thinking practicality and evangelical poverty, though.
It is hard in our time, when it is widely accepted that we should be very careful and fussy about our food, and scientists endlessly inform us alternately that butter and eggs are very very bad for us, except that they are very very good for us (or not). And of course, GKC was living in the era before there was a great deal of processed ‘food’ that is not really food at all in any real sense. There is a general sense today that we do have to fuss a bit around the food question.
I don’t think that is the main point he is making, of course. He himself says to eat the raw tomato if you please… just not with a grilled mind. And it is probably a matter of considerable meditation and thought as to just what a ‘grilled mind’ looks like and whether or not you and I may have one.
Chesterton, I know, had a great suspicion for anyone who devised complicated philosophical rationales for spurning that which the great mass of mankind considered obvious goods. Marriage and family and the home, love of one’s own people and nation, the ‘copybook maxims’ of honesty and integrity and courage, along with the simple capacity to enjoy life and its ordinary pleasures and joys—these are the self-evident goods that all normal people can recognize and embrace without difficulty.
It is the grilled mind that introduces levels and layers of complexity into the mixture, that deconstructs everything (without any clear plan, seemingly, for its reconstitution) and subverts everything in an endless hermeneutic of suspicion, that wants to tear down the simple ancient edifices of human life and happiness in some vague and ever-changing quest for a more scientific system of housing.
‘We’ll figure it out yet, the formula for a happy, good life. If not this year, next year – just so long as it’s anything except what our ancestors passed on to us.’ This is the grilled mind that needs to be healed in the tears and fires of purgation, I think, and it is no small question whether or not you and I suffer from this kind of grilling.