Chesterton’s basic theme in this book is that old-style orthodoxy is the way for true “progressive” reform. Let us assume he means Catholic orthodoxy, for he must. But he’s more than a little fuzzy in this regard.
Whatever you call it, and whatever the reasons for it, he accepts that this is a fallen world. (No surprise there.) And it is a world constantly in need of reform. One should never rest. But reform based on utopian or materialist ideals are bound to create a worse mess. That, I think, is a fair summary of one of the main themes of his book.
Granted, that does not mean he thinks we can, or should, take the ideas inherent in Christianity and apply them, minus the supernatural. He specifically is against this. But his appeal to Christian doctrine (orthodoxy) is surprisingly vague and weak for a book titled “Orthodoxy.” There’s a final chapter missing in this, for sure.
But let me run through some of the finer quotes and put them into context where necessary. I’ll start with my highlights from the beginning and work on through:
One of his main themes isn’t so much about orthodoxy, but the benefit of religion (seemingly any religion, frankly). Without it (and let us all refer back to conversations we’ve had with one-dimensional atheists), Chesterton says we are left with only half of what we could have had and are thus left barren.
And its despair is this, that it does not really believe that there is any meaning in the universe; therefore it cannot hope to find any romance; its romances will have no plots. A man cannot expect any adventures in the land of anarchy. But a man can expect any number of adventures if he goes traveling in the land of authority. One can find no meanings in a jungle of scepticism; but the man will find more and more meanings who walks through a forest of doctrine and design. Here everything has a story tied to its tail, like the tools or pictures in my father's house; for it is my father's house. I end where I began—at the right end. I have entered at last the gate of all good philosophy. I have come into my second childhood.
His general metaphor for “orthodoxy” (we’ll assume he means Catholic orthodoxy, not Leftist orthodoxy…a distinction he never makes) is quite excellent, if not perhaps entirely descriptive of reality. However, it’s the same argument we have with libertarians who want to tear down all restraints in order to be “free.” Chesterton writes:
Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff's edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.
The difficult fact is that Leftists would argue the exact same thing. With the walls of “diversity,” “equality,” and “tolerance,” we are free to do as we wish on that island (sleep with whomever you want, abort anything you want, pretend to any mix of gender that you want, accumulate as much debt as you want, etc.) and the state will have your back. Much of Chesterton’s rhetoric is excellent but he’s hardly Thomas Aquinas who could nail down his arguments by first summarizing (and better than his opposition) the contrary points of view.
One of the best quotes is at the start of the book:
The thing I do not propose to prove, the thing I propose to take as common ground between myself and any average reader, is this desirability of an active and imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity, a life such as western man at any rate always seems to have desired.
Certainly Chesterton is trying to be humble in his writing and not be over intellectual. I think he succeeds. That said, I might borrow that line and put it in the banner at the top of the ST page. We make no claim to secret knowledge but we do claim you have to be the sort of person who will look up from his phone for greater than five minutes to try to understand something. An “imaginative life, picturesque and full of a poetical curiosity” is just what this site was made for.
Chesterton is damn brilliant in regards to his understanding of reason. I love this quote:
Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do.
Here’s a similar quote right next to the above:
Everywhere we see that men do not go mad by dreaming. Critics are much madder than poets. Homer is complete and calm enough; it is his critics who tear him into extravagant tatters. The poet only desires exaltation and expansion, a world to stretch himself in. The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits.
Certainly a primary attack on religion for The New Atheists (or perhaps even the old ones) is that it muddles the mind. One of Chesterton’s main themes is:
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity.
I was never anti-religious or pro-religious. Nor was I ever really agnostic. But I did very early recognize how many of my contemporaries bought hook, line, and sinker the idea that even the faintest whiff of “superstition” would not only addle the brain, but made everything that came from such a person suspect. It’s not the first time the Left made bigotry acceptable. But this is certainly one of their largest successes in that regard.
And this is where I find that Chesterton gets lost in pleasing or hopeful rhetoric more than reality. I dare say, I don’t know how you would ever measure whether or not the religious (even just Christians) were healthier mentally, spiritually, and physically because of their religion. They indeed might be. But not even a few or sometimes any anecdotes are offered.
Here’s a quote very reminiscent of Ronald Reagan’s “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction”:
For there is a great and possible peril to the human mind: a peril as practical as burglary. Against it religious authority was reared, rightly or wrongly, as a barrier. And against it something certainly must be reared as a barrier, if our race is to avoid ruin. That peril is that the human intellect is free to destroy itself. Just as one generation could prevent the very existence of the next generation, by all entering a monastery or jumping into the sea, so one set of thinkers can in some degree prevent further thinking by teaching the next generation that there is no validity in any human thought.
This next quote is just wonderfully plucky:
It is quite easy to see why a legend is treated, and ought to be treated, more respectfully than a book of history. The legend is generally made by the majority of people in the village, who are sane. The book is generally written by the one man in the village who is mad.
The f-tards of the Left and all the Golden Children Whose Own Shit Doesn’t Stink believe they have nothing to learn from the past. This next one is certainly a foundational quote from Chesterton:
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.
I very much agree with this next quote. For those libtards (and others) running themselves ragged (and now even taking out loans according to an article I saw recently on Drudge) to take ever more exotic vacations (as an example), Chesterton writes:
Such, it seemed, was the joy of man, either in elfland or on earth; the happiness depended on NOT DOING SOMETHING which you could at any moment do and which, very often, it was not obvious why you should not do.
That’s similar to Blaise Pascal’s quote, “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” We have been taught, if only by habit (and exposure to so many commercials), that we must always be moving forward, be a hive of activity, accumulate more stuff, have ever more interesting adventures. I would submit that Chesterton is not set against these pursuits if they are in balance with their opposite. But the opposite — NOT DOING SOMETHING — is no longer even on the menu.
In fact, the entire idea of denying oneself something is foreign to most people these days. Certainly the idea that it’s actually good for you is probably foreign to even most of those who perhaps are just resigned to not being able to accumulate more.
Chesterton showed a great understanding of Christian critics as well:
I went over all the cases, and I found the key fitted so far. The fact that Swinburne was irritated at the unhappiness of Christians and yet more irritated at their happiness was easily explained. It was no longer a complication of diseases in Christianity, but a complication of diseases in Swinburne. The restraints of Christians saddened him simply because he was more hedonist than a healthy man should be. The faith of Christians angered him because he was more pessimist than a healthy man should be.
Another main theme of Chesterton is Christianity’s supposed unique ability to combine or synthesize opposites:
Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The Church was positive on both points. One can hardly think too little of one's self. One can hardly think too much of one's soul.
One look at the mad people running around pretending at various “genders” will show the hard truth of this next quote:
It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands. To have fallen into any one of the fads from Gnosticism to Christian Science would indeed have been obvious and tame. But to have avoided them all has been one whirling adventure; and in my vision the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect.
And I had no idea that Chesterton, back in 1908, was completely familiar with what today we call “The Daily Drama”:
But the man we see every day—the worker in Mr. Gradgrind's factory, the little clerk in Mr. Gradgrind's office—he is too mentally worried to believe in freedom. He is kept quiet with revolutionary literature. He is calmed and kept in his place by a constant succession of wild philosophies. He is a Marxian one day, a Nietzscheite the next day, a Superman (probably) the next day; and a slave every day. The only thing that remains after all the philosophies is the factory.
I forget the immediate context of the above quote, but I’m sure Chesterton was talking about how without sane boundaries and a robust philosophy of life (and certainly not one rooted in naive utopianism), we tended to become less free, in practice, by all our little petty distractions — distractions usually marketed to us to keep us that way.
More later when I have a chance. As you can see, there is some good stuff in this book even if I am not quite ready to walk on water.