Whether or not the human mind can advance or not is a question too little discussed, for nothing can be more dangerous than to found our social philosophy on any theory which is debatable but has not been debated. But if we assume, for the sake of argument, that there has been in the past, or will be in the future, such a thing as a growth or improvement of the human mind itself, there still remains a very sharp objection to be raised against the modern version of the improvement.
The vice of the modern notion of mental progress is that it is always something concerned with the breaking of bonds, the effacing of boundaries, the casting away of dogmas. But if there be such a thing as mental growth, it must mean the growth into more and more definite convictions, into more and more dogmas.
The human brain is a machine for coming to conclusions; if it cannot come to conclusions it is rusty. When we hear of man too clever to believe, we are hearing of something having almost the character of a contradiction in terms. It is like hearing of a nail that was too good to hold down a carpet; or a bolt that was too strong to keep a door shut.
Man can be defined as an animal that makes dogmas. As he piles doctrine on doctrine and conclusion on conclusion… he is becoming more and more human. When he drops one doctrine after another in a refined skepticism, when he declines to tie himself to a system, when says that he has outgrown definitions… he is by that very process sinking slowly backwards into the vagueness of the vagrant animals and unconsciousness of the grass. Trees have no dogmas. Turnips are singularly broadminded…
Somebody complain to Matthew Arnold that he was getting as dogmatic as Carlyle. He replied, “That may be true but you overlook an obvious difference. I am dogmatic and right; Carlyle is dogmatic and wrong.” The strong humor of the remark ought not to disguise from us its everlasting seriousness and common sense; no man ought to write at all, or even to speak at all, unless he things that he is in truth and the other man is n error.
GK Chesterton, Heretics
Reflection – So we come to the end of Heretics, (a sigh of relief is heaved by those readers of mine for whom this has not been nearly as fun as it has been for me). But I for one delight in the bracing common sense of Chesterton, nowhere more on display than in this final chapter.
He goes on to praise the men he has been in fierce debate with—Shaw, Well, Kipling, and so forth—for being strong minded enough to actually have ideas, believe their own ideas to be true and, consequently, that contradictory ideas are false (I realize that’s a logical leap that many in the post-modern world seem incapable of grasping), and having the courage and vigor to put their ideas out in the public square to be debated and furiously championed or repelled.
‘No man ought to write at all, or even speak at all, unless he thinks he is in truth, and the other man is in error.’ That is a wonderful, simple, straightforward expression of the matter. I’m also tempted to put it as the tag line to my blog, but I won’t of course.
Some will argue that this ends any possibility of dialogue. I disagree, strongly. In fact, when people will not advance their own ideas about things, holding them to be true, no dialogue is possible. When people either just nod their heads at whatever is said, or (if something thye hold to be truly vile is said) burst forth into personal abuse and vile insults, then dialogue is truly impossible.
It is only when men and women simply state their views, listening of course to the views of others, and strive to formulate a dogma or doctrine or statement of truth that is strong enough to withstand the objections and contradictions of debate, that a real dialogue is going on.
So, while at heart I am not really a controversialist, and truly don’t spend all my time on this blog discussing contentious matters, I do and will continue to do so from time to time. It is a human thing to do, as GKC observes. I have no desire to be a turnip or a tree, and both have and will give voice to my definite convictions about life.
And I encourage others to do so, in the comments if they will, on my FB page if they wish, or wherever. Incidentally, I know I have been painfully remiss in responding to comments lately – I can only plead for mercy in that my life this past month or so (and for the foreseeable future) has genuinely kicked up into high gear and I generally have just about enough time to write and post the blog each morning, and that’s it.