It is foolish, generally speaking, for a philosopher to set fire to another philosopher in Smithfield Market because they do not agree in their theory of the universe. This was done very frequently in the last decadence of the Middle Ages, and it failed altogether in its object.
But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter, and this is done universally in the twentieth century, in the decadence of the great revolutionary period…
When the old Liberals removed the gags from all the heresies, their idea was that religious and philosophical discoveries might thus be made. Their view was that cosmic truth was so important that everyone ought to bear independent testimony. The modern idea is that cosmic truth is so unimportant that it cannot matter what anyone would say.
The former freed inquiry as men loose a noble hound; the latter frees inquiry as men fling back into the sea a fish unfit for eating… The old restriction meant that only the orthodox were allowed to discuss religion. Modern liberty means that nobody is allowed to discuss it. Good taste, the last and vilest of human superstitions, has succeeded in silencing us where all the rest have failed...
Emancipation has only locked the saint in the same tower of silence as the heresiarch. Then we talk about Lord Anglesey and the weather and call it the complete liberty of the creeds.
GK Chesterton, Heretics
Reflection – Time for a new series on the blog! I thought it would be fun (well, for me, anyhow) to go through this book of Chesterton’s and do short excerpts from each chapter. He wrote the book as a young man, not yet Catholic, and in each chapter he examines the typical thought of the great popular writers of his day: some whose names are still known to us like Kipling, Shaw, and Wells, others who have fallen into obscurity.
It’s the ideas, though, not the men, who are of interest to GKC and to us. Whether the individual in question has risen or fallen in celebrity since 1925, the ideas each espoused have each had their effect in the world, each taken on a life of its own and had the consequences it has had.
And this is the crucial thing, of course: ideas have consequences. Truth matters, and when false ideas about reality are let loose in the land, bad things happen to people. This is the conviction underlying GKC’s book, and its follow-up the great classic Orthodoxy. The ideas we allow to rattle around in our heads are not inconsequential and impotent. From our ideas flows our actions, and from our actions flows not just the shape of our own lives, but the whole life of the world. Good ideas produce a world of peace, joy, light; bad ideas produce a world of chaos, confusion, darkness.
In this first chapter (and I only give a short excerpt of it here) he tackles the original bad idea, which is that ideas don’t matter, or that there is no truth or falsity in ideas, only personal preference. Of course this is, in itself, a logical contradiction—an idea being asserted as true that ideas don’t matter and are not true—and it is important to note what its consequence is.
The consequence is to stifle real discussion about essential truths. Since ‘de gustibus non disputandem’ (in matters of taste there is nothing to discuss), and whether or not one holds this philosophy or that is simply a matter of taste, it is rude and socially inappropriate to discuss these matters. And so, as Chesterton points out, we discuss ‘Lord Anglesey and the weather’ and call it the liberty of the creeds.
We discuss the Kardashians and the Walking Dead (but I repeat myself), Obama and the Sochi Olympics, but very little real conversation happens about essential matters, real discussion of real ideas, their consequences, their truth, their falsity. The Internet, I would argue, gives an illusion that all these things are discussed, and in some quarters they are, but it seems to me a great deal of Internet discussion devolves quickly into personal abuse and ad hominem attacks, reciting of banal slogans, preaching to various choirs, and storming off in a huff when the discussion gets too heated or pointed.
So, for the next little while, I want to look at Chesterton’s Heretics, a great book where a great man takes the ideas of other great men seriously enough to disagree with them and has enough respect for his fellows to say openly why he disagrees with them and where he thinks they go wrong.
Chesterton had a great gift for disagreeing without being disagreeable, for having arguments that didn’t devolve into mere quarrels, and for engaging in vigorous debate with the ideas of a person without ever, for a moment, attacking or insulting the person. In other words, he was able to discuss ideas freely and even fiercely without violating the law of charity. So I offer this little series of GKC, mostly because it’s great fun (for me, anyhow) but also because he has something to teach us, not just about this or that idea, but about how to talk about ideas with freedom and grace. And nobody gets burned in Smithfield Market, which is the main thing. Because that’s a baaaaad idea.