Friday, September 24, 2010

Don't Know Much About G. K. Chesterton

When a great thinker is misunderstood, the first question to ask is whether it is the fault of the great thinker or the fault of those who misunderstand him. Austin Bramwell has recently attempted to take stock of Chesterton's philosophical equipment and finds him lacking. He launched this attack from a blog called the "League of Ordinary Gentleman." That someone from such a society might not appreciate the gifts of such an extraordinary person may just go without saying and may, in fact, answer our first question.

The charge Bramwell brings against Chesterton is the oldest and most common charge against him: that his rhetorical prowess outstripped his intellectual capabilities. The attack on Chesterton usually takes this form: "Well, he's a terribly clever writer, but underneath all the clever paradox, there really isn't much substance."

The problem with this charge is that it is always brought by those whose intellectual powers are not, shall we say, in the same league as the person they're criticizing. The other problem is that the people who say that, while his literary gifts are prodigious, Chesterton is no philosopher are people who it is not clear are terribly qualified themselves to make such a judgment in the first place. But the most common problem is that those who criticize Chesterton really don't understand much of what he said, and they build their whole critique on their misunderstandings.

This is most certainly the case with Bramwell. If you're going to offer a serious assessment of a thinker, the first thing to get right is what the thinker is actually saying, and Bramwell clearly hasn't figured this out.

I became aware of Bramwell's article, now some two weeks old, from reading Ross Douthat's defense this last week of Chesterton against Bramwell's charges. Unfortunately, Douthat's defense doesn't do enough justice to Chesterton's capabilities. He comes close to stipulating that Bramwell is right: Chesterton is a philosophical lightweight--but isn't he clever? I don't think he goes quite that far, but he gives too much away. I think his point is that Chesterton is not a systematic professional philosopher, but he could have gone a lot further in extolling Chesterton's virtues as a philosophical thinker, virtues that are manifold.

If I'm ever charged with a serious philosophical offense, I'm probably finding someone else to take my case. Douthat doesn't help matters by quoting another ostensible defense by Michael Brenden Dougherty, who tries to get Chesterton off on the philosophical equivalent of manslaughter: he had no intention of practicing philosophy; he was just trying to be a good journalist, and any ideas he may have harmed the process were just accidental.

Douthat quotes Dougherty, who makes, says Douthat, "precisely the right point" about this criticism:
But Chesterton is rather a publicist and a polemicist on behalf of those ideals. He is not joining some great conversation with Don Scotus, Aristotle, and Nietszche. Rather he is in a constant scrum with Bertrand Russell, Benjamin Kidd, Cecil Rhodes, H.G. Wells, Sidney Webb, Edward Carpenter, W.T. Stead, etc. … If Chesterton were alive today a similar list would be something like, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Karen Armstrong … Marty Peretz, Stephen Hawking, and Jonathan Chait.
With friends like this they might as well just give Chesterton a blindfold and a cigarette and get it over with.

Chesterton's case files show him being accused of this crime from the very beginning of his literary career, and the chief bit of evidence against him is cited over and over again: paradox. "[B]y the time I’ve unraveled one of those Chestertonian paradoxes," says Bramwell, "not only do I have a headache, but I also don’t feel that I’ve come away with a single lasting idea." It's as if he had heard the criticism before and thought it might be more true if repeated one more time.

At least his early critics said it more artfully. One of them is cited by his earliest and best biographer, Masie Ward:
Paradox should be used like onions to season the salad. Mr. Chesterton's salad is all onions. Paradox has been defined as "truth standing on its head to attract attention." Mr. Chesterton makes truth cut her throat to attract attention.
As if feeling his own misunderstanding of Chesterton to be insufficiently deep, Bramwell finds someone else whose misunderstanding goes even deeper: Maurice Cowley, whom he quotes as follows:
Chesterton had little talent for philosophical, theological or theoretical statement. All he had — though he had this to the point of genius — was a talent for compressing long arguments into short paradoxes which left the reader to suggest the application for himself.
To call this utter nonsense is to give it entirely too much credit. It is a measure of mediocre minds that they would be looking straight at the very thing behind which Chesterton's genius lay and pronounce that it was the proof he didn't have any.

The great early 20th century playwright George Bernard Shaw harshly criticized Chesterton for associating himself so closely with Hillaire Belloc, a prominent early 20th century historian, writer and Catholic apologist. Shaw thought Belloc a mean intellect compared to Chesterton, and he referred to their close literary association as the "Chesterbelloc," a creature with a small upper body (Belloc's portion of the beast) and a huge behind (Chesterton's portion). Belloc was no intellectual slouch, but some credence was given to Shaw's assessment of Belloc when the latter wrote On the Place of Gilbert Chesterton in English Letters, in which Belloc almost completely ignores this aspect of Chesterton's thought in favor of arguing for Chesterton's literary position. "Nothing is more suggestive about Chesterton's use of paradox," said literary critic Hugh Kenner, "than the fact that Belloc barely noticed it."

Shaw, no mediocre mind himself, had properly taken Chesterton's measure and called him "a man of colossal genius."

When Ward went to write the biography that casts a shadow over all later biographies of Chesterton, she makes a point in regard to his use of paradox that later defenders of Chesterton took to a higher level:
What it amounted to was roughly this: paradox must be of the nature of things because of God's infinity and the limitations of the world and of man's mind. To us limited beings God can express his idea only in fragments. We can bring together apparent contradictions in those fragments whereby a great truth is suggested. If we do this in a sudden and incongruous manner we startle the unprepared and arouse the cry of paradox. But if we do not do it we will miss a great deal of truth.
When people who are unaccustomed to literary expression encounter it--when they can't fit it into their rationalistic categories and assign it a number--they throw up their hands and declare it meaningless. It is never a good idea, Chesterton once quipped, to give a poem "to a calculating boy." Real literary minds have had an assessment of Chesterton far different from his recent critics--and defenders.

Kenner, one of the 2oth century's great literary critics and a man whom Christopher Lehmann-Haupt once called America's "foremost commentator on literary modernism," wrote his first book on Chesterton--and it was devoted to just this aspect of Chesterton's thought. Those who are puzzled by Chesterton's paradoxes ought to read it.

In his Paradox in Chesterton, Kenner sees at the heart of Chesterton's paradoxes St. Thomas Aquinas' doctrine of analogy. "His especial gift," he says, "was his metaphysical intuition of being; his especial triumph was his exploitation of paradox to embody that intuition."
The heart of Chesterton's thinking and writing is his perception and use of paradox; yet because, as Belloc observed, it satisfies men for the wrong reason, it has been a principal hindrance to his rapid acceptance as an important thinker and writer. What appears to be superficial playing is really an intense plumbing among the mysterious roots of being and language; but in a sort of exhausted relief that this profound but disturbing visionary need not be read profoundly, his critics have neglected the intensity and enjoyed only the play ... Chesterton wrote as he did because he saw, not because he wanted to create a stir.
If Kenner has a fault, it is that, while properly assessing Chesterton's as a philosophical thinker, he undervalues him as a literary artist. Garry Wills, however, brings some balance to Kenner who sees Chesterton as only a non-systematic philosopher, and to Belloc, who sees him only as a Christian rhetor. In his Chesterton: Man and Mask (republished in recent years as, simply, Chesterton), Wills too realizes Chesterton's grounding in Thomistic thinking, but also gives him due recognition as a rhetorical and poetic artist. "Chesterton pursued the sophistries and anomolies of mere contradiction," says Wills, "as he upheld the paradoxes of authentic mystery."

This is an assessment that even his defenders, probably oblivious to the whole world of Aristotelian and Thomist thought, are unaware of: "Next to a considered book of philosophy," Dougherty remarks, trying to lower the philosophical expectations Chesterton should be required to meet, "Chesterton seems a little smug." Really? One of the interesting things about this criticism is how often it is leveled by philosophical novices--and how often it is contradicted by real philosophers.

Chesterton's bona fides as a philosophical thinker are perhaps no better shown than in his book St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox. He rapidly dictated the first half of the book to his secretary Dorothy Collins, the had her go get some books on "Tommy," which, when she brought them back, he leafed through quickly, threw on the floor as he proceeded to dictate the rest of the book. It was published from Collin's untouched dictation. The result?

Anton Pegis, a prominent Thomist philosopher, called the book "the best introduction to the mind and heart of the Angelic Doctor." And then there is Etienne Gilson.

"Chesterton makes one despair," said Gilson, who, with the possible exception of Jacques Maritain was considered the greatest Thomistic philosopher of modern times. "I have been studying St. Thomas all my life and I could never have written such a book." Gilson addressed the significance of Chesterton's book, as well as the canard about his philosophical shallowness in blunt terms:
I consider it as being without possible comparison the best book ever written on St. Thomas. Nothing short of genius can account for such an achievement. Everybody will no doubt admit that it is a "clever" book, but the few readers who have spent twenty or thirty years in studying St. Thomas Aquinas, and who, perhaps, have themselves published two or three volumes on the subject, cannot fail to perceive that the so-called "wit" of Chesterton has put their scholarship to shame. He has guessed all that which they had tried to demonstrate, and he has said all that which they were more or less clumsily attempting to express in academic formulas. Chesterton was one of the deepest thinkers who ever existed; he was deep because he was right; and he could not help being right; but he could not either help being modest and charitable, so he left it to those who could understand him to know that he was right, and deep; to others, he apologized for being right, and he made up for being deep by being witty. That is all they can see of him.
This is what actual philosophers think of Chesterton, but Bramwell can't see it. "He creates the feeling of philosophical achievement without the reality." Unfortunately that comment creates the feeling that the author has some understanding of the figure he is criticizing without the reality.

Nor can Bramwell see what everyone gets so excited about in his Christian apologetics, particularly as it manifests itself in Chesterton's Orthodoxy. The book Gilson calls "the best piece of apologetic the century has produced" doesn't impress Bramwell at all: "As a record of how Chesterton came to Christianity, Orthodoxy is completely unpersuasive." Of course, that might have to do with the fact that that wasn't really Chesterton's point.

Once again, a basic understanding of what one is criticizing seems absent. He quotes Cowley to again bolster his case:
In Orthodoxy, Chesterton’s chief tactical point was that the main Christian dogmas were more liberal in their implications than the self-consciously liberal dogmas by which they were assualted. . . . This was not put very well. But it was connected with a harder idea — that of Christianity as the “slash of the sword” which would destroy natural religion, the Arnoldian compromise, and the Inner Light, and establish that the world was a good deal less “regular” than it looked. It was to a world where “life” was “unreasonable” and superstition abounding, and where “earthquakes of emotion” could be unloosed about a word that Christian vigilance was presented as the response.
This is so utterly and completely at odds with Chesterton's real purpose in the book that it is hard to know how to answer it other than to mutely point at the book and try to use some hand signals (since Chesterton's actual words don't seem to have much impact) to indicate that even a cursory reading would dispel such confused nonsense. If a critic doesn't even know what the purpose of a thing is, it's kind of hard for him to assess whether that purpose has been accomplished.

Chesterton's dual purpose in Orthodoxy is to use the analogy of sanity to argue that the intellectually dis-integrated character of modern philosophies betrays all the characteristic symptoms of insanity, while the balanced worldview of Christianity uniquely marks it out as the only whole and comprehensive view of the world. In the second part of the book, he argues that the odd and unlikely shape of Christian doctrine fits the problems of the world as perfectly as a key fits a lock. That's it--right there in two sentences. And anyone who knows the book can see pretty clearly that this is its purpose. That Bramwell and the expert witness he calls to the stand do not even know this is a testament to their ignorance of what they criticize.

Finally, Bramwell makes a statement that simply defies any rational interpretation for anyone who knows anything about Chesterton:
... Chesterton is an irrationalist. H[e] seeks to paralyze the intellect in order to make room for awe. Admittedly, there can be no religion without awe (at least I think that’s right). Still, if Cowling is right, Chesterton opposes the traditions of natural theology and faith seeking understanding. His Christianity tries to keep reason permanently cabined.
I have read this paragraph over several times and I can only conjecture that there is some other writer out there with the name of "Chesterton," and we are all confused, thinking that it is G. K. Bramwell is talking about when in fact it is some other thinker. How else can you explain this remark?

All you have to do is read "The Ethics of Elfland," the fourth chapter in Orthodoxy and such a criticism becomes entirely inexplicable. That chapter from Orthodoxy was published alongside essays by Albert Einstin, Charles Darwin, and Stephen J. Gould in Martin Gardner's Great Essays in Science. In fact, before his death earlier this year, Gardner had written a book of collected essays on Chesterton, although I have not seen that it has been published. Bramwell claims to have read Orthodoxy. Did his copy not contain this chapter? Was his mind wandering when he read it? It wouldn't matter: the whole book is testimony against it.

I think maybe the problem here is twofold: First, some people are simply unaccustomed to poetic expression. Chesterton is a very literary writer, as many of the journalists of the time were. In fact, many great literary figures (Shaw is an example) frequently wrote for the daily papers. It is perhaps understandable that those of us who read today's etiolated version of the journalistic art have a hard time understanding those who wrote in a more poetically sophisticated age.

Second, those who have little understanding of the philosophy Chesterton was propounding--albeit in a very unsystematic way--can perhaps be excused for completely missing it. Chesterton's critics don't think there is anything behind his paradoxes not because there is nothing behind his paradoxes, but because they don't understand the philosophy behind his paradoxes. The irony is that they wouldn't understand the philosophy without the paradox any better than they understand it with the paradox.

I'm sure that Bramwell is more than an ordinary gentleman, but he is clearly out of his league.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant Dr. Cothran. Something very important has yet to twig in Mr. Bramwell it seems.

Unknown said...

Wow. I don't know anything about Chesterton, but this is one hell of a send up.

Hannah Lashbrook said...

Bravo, Mr. Cothran! Long live the Chestertonian style of presenting philosophy!

JuanJC said...

Oh thank you for your response. I was just thinking the same thing: perhaps GKC is so WAY up there that they think he doesn't really exist... They only see his shoes and part of his heels.
I asked Fr. Fessio one time who he thought was greater: Chesterton, Lewis, or Tolkien, he said, "they are such giants that I can't see who's taller."

Carl E. Olson said...

Excellent post. I was fortunate to get a copy of Kenner's book (for free!) many years ago, and it is brilliant. And to think that Kenner was in his early twenties when he wrote it. People who prattle about G.K. merely being "fun" or "clever" or some such thing have either never seriously read his work, or are incapable of recognizing genius.

Seanrwatson2 said...

You are a man of appreciation, however appreciation can blind the actual validity of that expressed. Chesterton uses no systems of explanation other than his genius for short clever phrases. His phrases are neither cohesive nor codified, coming to no significant form, but a series of blind judgements. Due to the nature of this post, in rant form, emotional motive was used which binds no rational clarity, thus overlooking rational explanation for the sensational.

Derek Caudill said...

Ever since I discovered Chesterton, I continue to grow in admiration of his thought and expression. I find that he makes clear intuitions that go much deeper, and speaks in a gilded yet commonsense fashion -- a weird, exhilirating, and hilarious style which might be called a paradox in itself. I really enjoyed the post.

Anonymous said...

There will always be people, whose cheif purpose it is to prove that tha giants are small and the sea is sweet water. Let us pray to God for them and do not give to much attention to what they say.