Wednesday, February 5, 2014

I Am Not a Turnip

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.

And so we bid a fond au revoir to Chesterton – not sure where we’re going next, but we’ll see what tomorrow brings… (I really don’t plan this blog much in advance). See you then.


  1. I see Chesterton's point here and it's good as far as it goes. But I don't like the idea that the mind is a machine for making conclusions. Conclusions reached by reason are not the primary goal of mental activity. I could go on about this, but I will refer to my friend Melinda Selmys' blog post on Reading as a Loser ( She has said it way better than I could. Here are a couple of exerpts.

    "Putting it in Christian terms, reading as a loser is a habit of spiritual meekness with respect to the ideas of others. It's a kind of ideological and rational humility, where instead of reading a text in order to discover whether you agree or disagree with it, you read it primarily in order to escape from your own subjectivity, to enter into intersubjective communion with the author. The discipline to put oneself aside in order to get inside a text, what Foucault calls philosophical askesis, provides the written word with the capacity to be transformative rather than merely persuasive. It is not that one is “overcome” by the power of the argumentation, but rather that one enters into the argument in the role of a student who has come to learn, rather than in the role of an adjudicator who has come to judge."

    "The author ceases to be merely a cipher for a series of ideas but becomes instead a person who presents a fascinating and compelling perspective, a paradigm shift that calls the reader out of him or herself and into another person's interior world. The reader is then able to disagree with the author through love of the author's thought rather than through enmity with it. Critique then becomes an act of love, a form of reciprocity through which the reader responds to the author and adds his own subjective perception of the text to the author's presentation."

    I'm not a turnip, but I sure as heck am not a machine for reaching conclusions. Maybe we are people who ask questions or who explore mysteries.

    1. Well, yes - I kind of gulped at his formulation there, which is not one of GKC's more felicitous turns of phrase. I think what he means, though, is that the telos of the intellect is to make true judgments about reality - to apprehend and assent to the truth, which is more or less the Aristotelian-Thomistic view of things.
      I agree with Selmys on the whole (as I do about most things, as it turns out!) but would insist that the goal of intellectual activity is to, in fact, discern the truth of a given matter.
      Of course I hold no brief with the use of the word 'machine' in this context, which is really awful and not at all Chesterton's usual form.

    2. Well...I agree with you in part, Father Denis. We do use our intellect to seek truth. But, not wholly so- we also use it to love more, to be more charitable and to hope.
      The difficulty I have with Chesterton (sometimes) is that it feels sometimes as if his world is only black and white. Perhaps, there was less color, fewer options in the early 1900s. But, it is exactly, this type of categorical imagery that if not recognized will continue to seperate us from ourselves, from each other and God.

      Bless you

    3. I would respond to that Catherine that (while of course I agree with you, as today's post shows) our intellect is used to love precisely by ascertaining the truth of a matter and helping us see what the true good to be done among the various choices arrayed before us. The mind is a truth-seeking instrument, but that truth is then to be used at the service of charity, or the mind has failed its ultimate goal (and is, actually, not fully in possession of the Truth, since the final truth is the Divine Charity).
      I am an unreconstructed and happy Thomist in this matter, but I think a proper understanding of Aquinas is exactly what I say here - the intellect is for truth, and truth is for love.
      Chesterton - well, he is who he is, and I like who he is, but it's true what you say, to some extent. Although I think his world is actually quite highly coloured, the more you delve into it.

    4. I certainly understand and appreciate where you are coming from....
      It is just that for me...for my personhood, I have to be careful of the images, the extremes, the dualistic thinking...because it seperates me from myself and others and God.

    5. I don't have anything to add, but this is a really good discussion. Thanks to both of you for your thoughtful comments.

      There's this idea out there ( I don't know where it came from, but it's a good one) that everyone is attuned to one of the transcendentals in a special way. Fr. Denis, I suspect you're a "Truth" person ("an unreconstructed and happy Thomist"!). Me, I'm a beauty person. So, I guess there's no disagreement here, just a difference of approach. I tend to like ideas that grab me by the throat and shake me around a little. I subject them to rational analysis later.

      Thanks again to everyone.

    6. Oh yeah, I'm all about The Truth, baby! (Cue Jack Nicholson: "You can't handle the truth!"). I would say, though, reflecting on my own subjective experience, that for me the truth is intensely beautiful, and the act of analyzing and apprehending something as 'true' is a genuine aesthetic experience. All of which goes towards the fact that all the transcendentals indwell each other in a sort of perichoresis mirroring the indwelling life of the Trinity.

  2. Over whelmed again. Having read most of the authors noted by you'all but conveniently forgot the specifics I trust some of it is in the fabric of who I am. So it is fun to dredge it up a bit. Having read the Catechism a few times and various documents especially social teaching, followed the teachings of recent Pope's and have made my assent to these collective dogmatic offering the basis of my faith against which I judge. I have attempted in real time to lay dogma upon dogma and conclude that my Catholic faith deepening through the Spirit even as I type is truth for me. The yard stick of my prospective whatever its ancestry. One more route to the Father.


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