GKC – What’s Your Problem? Orthodoxy Chapter 01b   Leave a comment

So we already talked about the bad bits of “Introduction in Defense of Everything Else” here. Now we get to why I haven’t consigned Chesterton’s colonialist butt to a box in my closet.

Chesterton starts off by explaining what Orthodoxy is about:

“[The reader] will find that [in this book] I have attempted in a vague and and personal way, in a set of mental pictures rather than in a series of deductions, to state the philosophy in which I have come to believe. I will not call it my philosophy; for I did not make it. God and humanity made it; and it made me.”

So Chesterton is stating his personal philosophy. And it is his personal philosophy. When I was younger, I used to be fascinated by the fact that different ideologies taught people different grammars. You could stick a Catholic theologian and a mainline Protestant theologian in a room together, get them talking about something that had nothing to do with theology, and I could have told you which was which just by the way they talked. People from different ideological backgrounds approach things differently, talk about things differently, and if someone is steeped enough in one intellectual tradition (and most people aren’t), you can pick up on it.

One of the broadest ways to do that is to ask what problem the philosopher you want to identify is asking. It’s been too long since I’ve studied Kant to remember what dilemma exactly he was trying to escape, but his whole system of ethics (put simply, don’t do something that would be bad if everyone did it) was his answer to a tough question. Likewise, Christian Apologists will often posit a problem like the Separation of Humanity from God and then go on to claim that their rivals don’t have a solution. There are lots of these kinds of intractable problems: Free Will, Pain, Evil, Original Sin. I even talked about one that I had in an earlier post. What problem a philosopher poses as the most important problem tells you every bit as much about that philosopher as their solution. And Chesterton’s problem, as far as I can tell, is unique.

“This at least seems to me the main problem for philosophers, and is in a manner the main problem of this book. How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it?… We need to be happy in this wonderland without being merely comfortable.”

One of the most beautiful and fantastic things about Chesterton is his perpetual and jubilant celebration of existence. Life is fantastic for Chesterton in the literal sense of feeling like a fantasy. One gets the sense from some of his writings that Chesterton sets out to fall in love with his wife anew each and every day. And that is why I’m writing these commentaries. Chesterton is wrong or flawed in many things, but the crux of his work was to recognize the ordinary for what it is: extraordinary. Two of his books, Manalive and Tremendous Trifles are a direct working out of this theme, and it is present in many of his other works. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I think much more of Chesterton’s writing ability than I do of my own, and on the assumption that my readers will feel the same way, I’ll let Chesterton himself answer his own problem:

“I did, like all other solemn little boys, try to be in advance of the age. Like them I tried to be some ten minutes in advance of the truth. And I found that I was eighteen hundred years behind it… It may be, Heaven forgive me, that I did try to be original; but I only succeeded in inventing all by myself an inferior copy of existing traditions of civilized religion… I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the finishing touches to it, I discovered that it was orthodoxy.”

It does seem odd that I, who no longer believe in eternal damnation or the necessity of Christ’s death on the cross, should be touting this book. But in the end, I don’t care what Chesterton calls his philosophy. It inspires me to celebrate life in all its aspects. It inspires me to see the divine in the ordinary, and I’m going to go with that. Next week, chapter two.


Posted 06/24/2012 by reluctantliberal in GKC

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