Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Narrowness of the Internet

It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantage of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world.

He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery.

There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but it in their souls, by the diverse luck of things, there will always be more colors than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell.

A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the word, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.
GK Chesterton, Heretics

Reflection – This entire essay, entitled “On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family” is so insightful, prescient and at the same time uproariously funny that I will stay with it for a couple days after this—yet another essay well worth the price of the book.

Chesterton anticipates here some of the more unsavory and unwholesome effects of the Internet. The Internet is, of course, just about the biggest society ever devised, the most extensive and varied ‘city’ in human history. And it is well known, well observed, and a very serious problem indeed that the Internet which is supposed to connect us all together into one big human family instead at least tends to be the greatest clique generator possible.

We have all seen (in fact, it’s become rather trite and tiresome to point it out) the phenomenon of people withdrawing from their families and immediate environments into the digital world – the whole spectacle of people gathered around a dinner table or some other social setting all staring at their smart phones, abstracted and ‘alone together’, in the words of Sherry Turkle.

And of course, people can indeed spend their time on the Internet talking with people who are completely different than them, who share absolutely different views on life, different temperaments, different basic attitudes and approaches to things… but they don’t, mostly. People tend to group together on-line with those who think like them, talk like them, laugh at the same jokes, get the same references, use the same shorthand… and it all tends towards precisely the narrowing of vision, the narrowing of human knowledge and breadth of experience that GKC describes here.

Some would object here, I suppose, that I am a fine one to talk, as I after all joined a Catholic religious community 25 years ago and have in consequence lived my life among people who share the same beliefs and essential world view as myself. These are people who have never been to Madonna House. We may all be Catholics, and indeed we do have the same religious beliefs… but that’s about it, ‘having things in common-wise’!

Without getting into inappropriate on-line sharing (I always assure my MH brothers and sisters that just because I’ve decided to put myself on-line by blogging, they haven’t, and I respect their privacy, and so don’t tend to blog about MH too much), we are just about the most diverse and wildly divergent group of people, and a good deal of our community life is well described as the ‘experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises’ that is the lot of all who bind themselves to a small community like a family or a village.

The fact is, it is the constant struggle and effort to understand, relate to, and get along with the people who happen to be in the immediate vicinity that challenges and broadens a person, far more than flying around into various digital cliques and clubs where everyone either thinks just like you, or if they don’t and you get offended, a click of the mouse whisks you away.

You can’t click the mouse to get rid of your snarky next door neighbor, your obtuse cousin, your infuriatingly narrow minded brother, or your fussy foolish niece. You have to just deal with them, as they are dealing with you, and there is nothing more salutary and wholesome than to have to do just that together. Alas, more and more nowadays the smart phones come out, everyone retreats back to the digital cliques, and the rich possibilities of growth and tempering recede from us. It’s a serious problem, and will have serious consequences if it is not recognized and addressed, as some of us have tried to do.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

How To Be a Good Pagan

There is one broad fact about the relations of Christianity and Paganism which is so simple that many will smile at it, but which is so important that all moderns forget it. The primary fact about Christianity and Paganism is that one came after the other.

Mr. Lowes Dickinson speaks of them as if they were parallel ideals—even speaks as if Paganism were the newer of the two, and the more fitted for a new age. He suggests that the Pagan idea will be the ultimate good of man; but if that is so, we must at least ask with more curiosity than he allows for, why it was that man actually found his ultimate good on earth under the stars, and threw it away again…

There is only one thing in the modern world that has been face to face with Paganism… and that is Christianity. That fact is really the weak point in the whole of that hedonistic neo-Paganism of which I have spoken. All that genuinely remains of the ancient hymns or the ancient dances of Europe, all that has honestly come to us from the festivals of Phoebus or Pan, is to be found in the festivals of the Christian Church.

If anyone really wants to hold the end of a chain which really goes back to the heathen mysteries, he had better take hold of a festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas.

Everything else in the modern world is of Christian origin, even everything that seems most anti-Christian. The French Revolution is of Christian origin. The anarchists are of Christian origin. Physical science is of Christian origin. The attack on Christianity is of Christian origin. There is one thing and one thing only, in existence at the present day which can in any sense accurately be said to be of pagan origin, and that is Christianity.
GK Chesterton, Heretics

Reflection – GKC goes on here (at some length, as is his wont, although I guess I’m in no position to criticize), to delineate many of the true distinctions of Paganism and Christianity, and the very real virtues and strengths of the first. He counters however with the unique virtues of Christianity, which he names as charity (“a reverent agnosticism towards the complexity of the soul”), chivalry (the love of the weak because they are weak), and humility (knowing oneself as weak, and in that knowledge becoming boundlessly strong).

Ultimately he credits Paganism with being a wholly reasonable and common sense approach to life, but “we cannot go back to an ideal of reason and sanity. For mankind has discovered that reason does not lead to sanity.”

While the romance of Paganism has somewhat worn off, and certainly never took off the way Dickinson et al. thought it might, it is still around. Neo-paganism exists. It is worth asking Chesterton’s question: why, if Paganism was all that great, did the pagans all become Christians?

We cannot answer that they were forced to by a dominant Church. The dominant Church, the Church that had power to force its will on the general population, factually did not show up until the second millennium of Christianity. We’re talking here about events that happened in the first five to six hundred years of Christianity, when the Church was a rag tag group scattered across the Roman empire, one ancient upstart cult among a hundred. Constantine did not impose Christianity on his subjects; he merely ended the persecution of the Church. And part of his ending the persecution of the Church was because by that point a rather large percentage of his subjects had become members of it, in an era when it exerted no political power whatsoever.

Now why would that be, if Paganism was such a perfect religion, so suited to the needs of the human person? OK, so Paganism may not be your bag, anyhow (somehow, I don’t think too many Wiccans are reading this blog…). But there can be a sense in modernity that we just need to get back to some kind of natural state of man—the sort of Rousseauian ‘noble savage’ idea. If only we can ‘get ourselves back to the garden’ by way of Woodstock.

This is a kind of nostalgia for something that is older and earlier than Christianity, some state of innocence that was fundamentally marred by the incursion of religion and especially the Christian religion with its rules and dogmas. This is certainly one current among many that floats around today.
GKC is well to point out that, in fact, we did all that, we plumbed the depths of human life, human rationality, human enjoyment of the world—Paganism at its heights and depths really was a marvelous thing that left few stones unturned in the human reality. And… then they all became Christians.

And Christianity has no great quarrel with Paganism factually. There is no, absolutely no, record of any great ‘persecution’ of Pagans by Christians—such was unnecessary as they all ran into the Church with enthusiasm, seemingly, over a period of a few centuries. And the Church was happy to receive all the good things of Paganism, the philosophy and the music and dance, the mad merriment and the sober reflection, and make it its own.

Paganism is essentially humanity left to its own devices, more or less. And what we all learn, fast or slow, is that humanity cannot be left to its own devices. We need a savior, as it turns out, and (fortunately!) we have been provided with one, and the Church is ready, always ready, to proclaim and present that Savior and the salvation he brings to all the neo-pagans, etc., of our day.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Growing Reed

The obvious truth is that the moment any matter has passed through the human mind it is finally and forever spoilt for all purposes of science. It has become a thing incurably mysterious and infinite; this mortal has put on immortality.

Even what we call our material desires are spiritual, because they are human. Science can analyze a pork chop, and say how much of it is phosphorus and how much is protein; but science cannot analyze any man’s wish for a pork chop, and say how much of it is hunger, how much custom, how much nervous fancy, how much a haunting love for the beautiful.

The man’s desire for the pork chop remains literally as mystical and ethereal as his desire for heaven. All attempts, therefore, at a science of any human things, at a science of history, a science of folklore, a science of sociology, are by their nature not merely hopeless, but crazy.

You can no more be certain in economic history that a man’s desire for money was merely a desire for money than you can be certain in hagiology that a saint’s desire for God was merely a desire for God. And this kind of vagueness in the primary phenomena of the study is an absolutely final blow to anything in the nature of a science.

Men can construct a science with very few instruments, or with very plain instruments; but no one on earth could construct a science with unreliable instruments. A man might work out the whole of mathematics with a handful of pebbles, but not with a handful of clay which was always falling apart into new fragments, and falling together into new combinations. A man might measure heaven and earth with a reed, but not with a growing reed.

GK Chesterton, Heretics

Reflection – Another fine chapter from the man, worthy of the price of the book. He is specifically responding here to the kind of anthropology of folk lore fashionable in his day, which indeed tended to treat human beings (and especially, not to emphasize this aspect too much, human beings of darker skin tone and southern latitudes) as strange alien subjects to be studied under strict laboratory conditions. 
The idea that the scientist can possibly distance himself, dehumanize himself, in the study of man and his ways, and that this would actually be a movement towards deeper insight and understanding of man and his ways—this is what GKC is critiquing.

And I am firmly and utterly in agreement with him on this matter. The specific kind of anthropology he critiques has had its day, more or less, in part because of the precise criticisms Chesterton made of it, in part because there was in fact quite a bit of genuinely nasty racist sub-text at least implied if not always exactly intended in this kind of ‘scholarship’.

But the attempt to put man and woman under the microscope and treat humanity as a subject of scientific research continues. Perhaps it is needless to say that we are not talking here about medical science and all that: of course the workings of the human body are as much a matter of scientific research as the study of any other body, living or dead.

It is the workings of the human mind and its mysteries—this is not a matter for science, properly speaking. I realize that Chesterton’s position (which is mine, too) is unconventional, but I think it is true. And it think it can be borne out simply by studying the history of anthropology/sociology/ history/psychology. Theory has succeeded upon theory in each and all of these fields. Each theory has been advanced and argued upon rigorous scientific grounds. Arguments and research and the most scientific tests have been exercised in producing the latest theory about… oh, education, or sexuality, or economic behavior, or the causes of revolution, or... name it.

And ten years later, another bunch of scientists come up with a completely contradictory theory, bolstered by all the same type of research and scientific tests and studies and… well, something is very wrong with this picture, isn’t it? If I boil water one day under strict laboratory conditions and it boils at 100 degrees Celsius, and the next day using the same methodology it boils at 78 degrees, then either something is badly wrong with me, with the instruments, or with the water.

Yet this is exactly what has happened over and over again in all the attempts to ‘scientifically’ study humanity, and yet we remain inclined to uncritically accept whatever the latest batch of theories are that come from these (admittedly) brilliant men and women and their (granted) hard work.

The truth is, the best way to study what a human being is and why we do what we do is to attain the best possible knowledge of the one human being who is available to you for intense study at all hours of the day. In other words, look to your own heart and know what is going on inside yourself, and why. ‘Know thyself’, the inscription on the Delphic temple said, and you will know the mysteries of the universe. The Greeks knew a thing or two, as did the wise monks of the desert and the cloister of our Christian tradition, as did the common folk and the common sense of humanity.

We might consider taking that route of understanding and knowledge of humanity, out of which grew the vast and wondrous thing we call ‘civilization’, rather than the pseudo-scientific approach decried here by GKC, which has yet to produce any great result and which has at least accompanied the decline of civilization into the neo-barbarism of our times.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Cooked Food, Raw Mind

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.