Part of my Orthodoxy blogging – Find the entire series here
Gotta love the title, huh? And in the second paragraph, Chesterton made me start scratching my head and reconsidering how I think (all emphasis in quoted text is mine):
The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also, and the virtues wander far more wildly, and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of Christian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone.
I had never considered virtues as something potentially dangerous, but that is exactly what Chesterton says is happening. Because the virtues (and vices too) have been separated from their context and from each other, they are being misapplied.
Chesterton gives us an example of what he means, using charity. He cites an example of a philosopher of his day getting hung up on charity. Charity, by itself, leads to the conclusion that it will be “easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive.” However, says Chesterton, “his mercy would mean mere anarchy.” If there is no sin, then we lose sight of what is truly good. We get a taste for disorder and we no longer realize that we are swallowing poison. We think that calling that poison by another name changes its nature and Chesterton points out that it does not. Examples of this are all around us today, including the redefining of nearly everything, including marriage.
Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man. He was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure, he lost the chief pleasure; for the chief pleasure is surprise. … It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything–even pride.
But what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert–himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt–the Divine Reason.
In the last chapter, Chesterton introduced us to the folly and fallacy of self-confidence as a strength. He posits that self-confidence is a great weakness. It seems that this self-confidence is tied in with modern man’s lack of humility in the right place.
We think we know all the answers, that no one can tell us or show us anything new. We’ve seen it all before.
Chesterton maintains and shows us that this is a form of intellectual helplessness, rather than a strength.
We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table. We are in danger of seeing philosophers who doubt the law of gravity as being a mere fancy of their own. Scoffers of old time were too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek do inherit the earth; but the modern skeptics are too meek to claim their inheritance.
Not far from this, Chesterton says, “Reason is itself a matter of faith.”
That reminded me of a lively conversation we had when I was in RCIA. Father pointed out that it took as much faith to believe in the existence of the galaxy that was 1.5 gazillion miles away as to believe in God. The galaxy would do nothing to let us know of its presence. We had to take it on some sort of faith that it did exist, that scientists weren’t just making it up to support their funding.
What do you want to put your faith in? That’s what it came down to.
Later in this chapter, Chesterton highlights something that sung to me: the need for an absolute.
The pragmatist tells a man to think what he must think and never mind the Absolute. But precisely one of the things that he must think is the Absolute. This philosophy, indeed, is a kind of verbal paradox. Pragmatism is a matter of human needs; and one of the first human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.
Going along with this, we find Chesterton stating something else that can be demonstrated in my home, at any time when the kids are awake.
Every act of will is an act of self-limitation. To desire action is to desire limitation.
The three-year-old comes in and demands milk. But when I pour the milk, she cries out that she wanted juice! (How could I not have known? Surely, the formation of the word “milk” was misheard.) Let’s say I humor her and get a new cup, which I fill with juice.
It’s a simple action, but it was limiting. Juice or milk. Yes or no. She cannot get it for herself (or she hasn’t realized she could try, much to my relief). She wants me to act, but that desire for action means she has to choose, to limit herself.
(Anyone with a better, more clear example of this or of any of the concepts in the chapter…go for it in the comments! I’m a bit fuzzy-headed after a long night with a sick baby.)
Here’s a final gem from Chesterton in this chapter:
Thinking in isolation and with pride ends in being an idiot. Every man who will not have softening of the heart must at last have softening of the brain.
This chapter clarifies so many of the things in life that have had me chewing and pondering. What was your favorite part? What got you thinking and scratching your chin?
my dear, this has hit upon the very subject of an on-going debate I’ve had with a friend for years!
have I told you how much I’ve enjoyed this series?
Glad to help (I think). Thanks! 🙂
Have I told you how much I enjoy having you along for this series? 🙂
His explanation of limiting oneself was fascinating. I mean, the whole chapter (and really the whole book) has been one concept after another that I *thought* I had a grasp on, and he completely turns it inside and out to present it in a new way.
I agree, Allie. He turns everything all around and then makes it so much
clearer so that I feel like I actually understand it. But I know I’m only
glancing the top of his brilliance. What I love about Chesterton (so
far–and from what I understand this will not fade) is that I know I will be
able to re-read and re-read and still glean new insight, wisdom, and
“Charity, by itself, leads to the conclusion that it will be “easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive.” However, says Chesterton, “his mercy would mean mere anarchy.” If there is no sin, then we lose sight of what is truly good. We get a taste for disorder and we no longer realize that we are swallowing poison.”
I found this very interesting.
I read this book over a year ago and found it very difficult. Parts I “got” (I think) and other parts just went right over my head. But overall I found it fascinating. I think I’m actually understanding a bit more about the book overall from reading your musings on it. You’re making me want to try and read it again (how dare you!! LOL!). Seriously though, it is the kind of book I think I could read multiple times and always learn something new or see something in a new light. Excellent commentary!!
I love that you are discussing this because I am reading it with a group of friends and just happen to be on the same chapter 🙂 I also spent a while on the idea that every action is a self-limitation. It has something to say to me about why I often struggle to make choices– fear of making the wrong one! This has always been a scary or strange thought for me, but his explanation art as limitation put a new spin on this. Will try to blog about it as well and link to you. You are awesome, and I hope all is well! 🙂