Thursday, March 31, 2011

Should Christians Celebrate Secular Festivals?

And as I am actively hostile to the 'New Year', a celebration of nothing in particular generally encouraged by states which loathe Christmas, I'll try to make no further mention of this empty, insignificant moment, for which non-devotees now have to buy earplugs if we wish to sleep, since the 'New Year' lot seem to think they are entitled to shatter the midnight peace with colossal explosions and high-pitched whistles.

Peter Hitchens blog, 31.12.10

I’d like to think, though, that my longstanding aversion to making a Big Deal out of New Year’s Eve has something to do with my conviction, which is the Church’s conviction, that the real “new year” begins with First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent. And if that’s true, then going bonkers over the turn of the civil calendar is giving a bit more to Caesar than Caesar has a right to receive.

George Weigel, First Things, 19.12.2010

But if the wisdom of Comte was insufficient, the folly of Comte was wisdom. In an age of dusty modernity, when beauty was thought of as something barbaric and ugliness as something sensible, he alone saw that men must always have the sacredness of mummery. He saw that while the brutes have all the useful things, the things that are truly human are the useless ones. He saw the falsehood of that almost universal notion of to-day, the notion that rites and forms are something artificial, additional, and corrupt. Ritual is really much older than thought; it is much simpler and much wilder than thought. A feeling touching the nature of things does not only make men feel that there are certain proper things to say; it makes them feel that there are certain proper things to do. The more agreeable of these consist of dancing, building temples, and shouting very loud; the less agreeable, of wearing green carnations and burning other philosophers alive. But everywhere the religious dance came before the religious hymn, and man was a ritualist before he could speak. If Comtism had spread the world would have been converted, not by the Comtist philosophy, but by the Comtist calendar. By discouraging what they conceive to be the weakness of their master, the English Positivists have broken the strength of their religion. A man who has faith must be prepared not only to be a martyr, but to be a fool. It is absurd to say that a man is ready to toil and die for his convictions when he is not even ready to wear a wreath round his head for them. I myself, to take a corpus vile, am very certain that I would not read the works of Comte through for any consideration whatever. But I can easily imagine myself with the greatest enthusiasm lighting a bonfire on Darwin Day.

GK Chesterton, Heretics, 1908

For what it's worth, I agree with Chesterton. Celebrating New Year's Eve doesn't seem like an insult to Christmas to me. I don't think we can have too many festivals, though of course some festivals may be anti-Christian or immoral in nature. That's something quite different.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Lewis vs. Chesterton on Whether Authors' Opinions Matter

In good reading there ought to be no "problem of belief". I read Lucretius and Dante at a time when (by and large) I agreed with Lucretius. I have read them since I came (by and large) to agree with Dante. I cannot find that this has much altered my experience, or at all altered my evaluation, of either. A true lover of literature should be in one way like an honest examiner, who is prepared to give the highest marks to the telling, felicitous and well-documented exposition of views he dissents from or even abominates.

--C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism

In concluding this book, therefore, I would ask, first and foremost, that men such as these of whom I have spoken should not be insulted by being taken for artists. No man has any right whatever merely to enjoy the work of Mr. Bernard Shaw; he might as well enjoy the invasion of his country by the French. Mr. Shaw writes either to convince or to enrage us. No man has any business to be a Kiplingite without being a politician, and an Imperialist politician. If a man is first with us, it should be because of what is first with him. If a man convinces us at all, it should be by his convictions. If we hate a poem of Kipling's from political passion, we are hating it for the same reason that the poet loved it; if we dislike him because of his opinions, we are disliking him for the best of all possible reasons. If a man comes into Hyde Park to preach it is permissible to hoot him; but it is discourteous to applaud him as a performing bear. And an artist is only a performing bear compared with the meanest man who fancies he has anything to say.

There is, indeed, one class of modern writers and thinkers who cannot altogether be overlooked in this question, though there is no space here for a lengthy account of them, which, indeed, to confess the truth, would consist chiefly of abuse. I mean those who get over all these abysses and reconcile all these wars by talking about "aspects of truth," by saying that the art of Kipling represents one aspect of the truth, and the art of William Watson another; the art of Mr. Bernard Shaw one aspect of the truth, and the art of Mr. Cunningham Grahame another; the art of Mr. H. G. Wells one aspect, and the art of Mr. Coventry Patmore (say) another. I will only say here that this seems to me an evasion which has not even bad the sense to disguise itself ingeniously in words. If we talk of a certain thing being an aspect of truth, it is evident that we claim to know what is truth; just as, if we talk of the hind leg of a dog, we claim to know what is a dog. Unfortunately, the philosopher who talks about aspects of truth generally also asks, "What is truth?" Frequently even he denies the existence of truth, or says it is inconceivable by the human intelligence. How, then, can he recognize its aspects? I should not like to be an artist who brought an architectural sketch to a builder, saying, "This is the south aspect of Sea-View Cottage. Sea-View Cottage, of course, does not exist." I should not even like very much to have to explain, under such circumstances, that Sea-View Cottage might exist, but was unthinkable by the human mind. Nor should I like any better to be the bungling and absurd metaphysician who professed to be able to see everywhere the aspects of a truth that is not there. Of course, it is perfectly obvious that there are truths in Kipling, that there are truths in Shaw or Wells. But the degree to which we can perceive them depends strictly upon how far we have a definite conception inside us of what is truth. It is ludicrous to suppose that the more sceptical we are the more we see good in everything. It is clear that the more we are certain what good is, the more we shall see good in everything.

--GK Chesterton, Heretics

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Song of the Strange Ascetic

As I've mentioned before here (but does anybody ever listen?), I'm not a huge fan of Chesterton the poet, though I think he wrote some sublime verses. I don't think he was fussy enough to be a consistently fine poet.

However, he wrote several poems worth returning to, and this is one of them. The last couplet has become almost proverbial.

The Song of the Strange Ascetic

f I had been a Heathen,
I’d have praised the purple vine,
My slaves should dig the vineyards,
And I would drink the wine.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And his slaves grow lean and grey,
That he may drink some tepid milk
Exactly twice a day.

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have crowned Neaera’s curls,
And filled my life with love affairs,
My house with dancing girls;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And to lecture rooms is forced,
Where his aunts, who are not married,
Demand to be divorced.

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have sent my armies forth,
And dragged behind my chariots
The Chieftains of the North.
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And he drives the dreary quill,
To lend the poor that funny cash
That makes them poorer still.

If I had been a Heathen,
I’d have piled my pyre on high,
And in a great red whirlwind
Gone roaring to the sky;
But Higgins is a Heathen,
And a richer man than I:
And they put him in an oven,
Just as if he were a pie.

Now who that runs can read it,
The riddle that I write,
Of why this poor old sinner,
Should sin without delight-
But I, I cannot read it
(Although I run and run),
Of them that do not have the faith,
And will not have the fun.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Peter Hitchens Quotes Father Brown...

...on his blog (which, with delicious stuffiness, he insists on calling a "weblog"):

The interesting reverse of the [atheist] bus slogan ["There's Probably No God, Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life"], the Christian understanding that actions matter in a way we can't readily observe or understand if we reject the eternal, is hauntingly expressed in this passage from a 'Father Brown' story 'The Sins of Prince Saradine'.

"Do you believe in doom?" asked the restless Prince Saradine suddenly.

"No", answered his guest. "I believe in Doomsday."

The prince turned from the window and stared at him in a singular manner, his face in shadow against the sunset. "What do you mean?"he asked.

"I mean that we here are on the wrong side of the tapestry," answered Father Brown. "The things that happen here do not seem to mean anything; they mean something somewhere else. Somewhere else retribution will come on the real offender. Here it often seems to fall on the wrong person."

I particularly like that phrase 'the wrong side of the tapestry', as it is such a good metaphor for the way humans so often completely misunderstand the circumstances in which they find themselves. And the idea that our actions 'mean something somewhere else' sends a shiver down my spine whenever I think about it, as well it might.

Read the whole post here.

Peter Hitchens is an interesting character. I read his recent book, The Rage Against God, several times. As a memoir of English society and attitudes to religion, it's marvellous. As an argument against atheism, it leaves something to desired (especially Hitchen's oft-repeated claim that there is no decisive proof or disproof of God's existence; something a Catholic could not affirm.) He also quotes Chesterton's poem, The Silent People, in his equally readable The Abolition of Britain.

Hitchens is pretty much a lone voice in England now in his full-blooded traditionalism. (Even Roger Scruton's conservatism is rather qualified, agnostic and fatalistic, very far from Chesterton and Belloc's rousing and fighting creed.) But Chesterton would clash with him in his defence of Prohibition.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Why Idealists Win

"This is the blunder of the cynics when they say that idealists do not succeed. Idealists, consistent idealists, succeed much better than anyone else, because no man can be at ease in the presence of his own neglected ideal. Men are always fidgetting and shifting a little nearer to the high seat where the fanatic sits. When once a man has been called an impracticable visionary, he is practically bound to be a success. The moment a thing has been called impossible, something sporting in the soul of man takes the bet and resolves to bring the thing about."

The Right Way to Denounce Things, June 1912, Illustrated London News

I don't know whether it's quite true that "when a man has been called an impracticable visionary, he is practically bound to be a success"; but I do believe there is something inside all of us that admires the fanatic. Secularists may decry faith as being irrational; but the human soul craves faith. We thrill to stories of pioneers who had such faith in a single idea-- whether it was a new design of toaster or a new form of government-- that they persevered in the face of opposition and ridicule. The climax of our films and stories so often involve one character showing unbreakable faith in another. Liberals retain their faith in democracy and education when it seems like dictatorship and ignorance (as they see it) is in the ascendant, and traditionalists hold to their faith in the "abiding things" when the world seems to be nothing but flux.

It was the madness of 1916 that won Irish independence where all the fillibustering and power politics of the preceding decades had failed. The national legend of the British people is the "finest hour" of 1940, when continued resistance against Hitler seemed futile.

Personally, I don't know whether man-made climate change is a reality or not, but I do sometimes wonder if recycling and energy-saving appeals to the younger generation because they are bored with affluence and cry out for some kind of austerity.

It also makes me wonder if we are going to see more and more Westerners, brought up in a culture where self-gratification is the highest good, drawn to Islam for its promise of a more challenging and purposeful life.

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Little Bit of Self-Promotion

Never hurt anybody, did it?

I am momentarily taking off my GK Chesterton Society of Ireland hat and putting on my "not terribly informed Catholic" hat to plug my new other blog, Practicing to be Catholic. Ill-informed ramblings on the sacred tradition I am doing my best to understand, and the state of Catholicism in Ireland.

So many Catholic blogs are so theologically, politically, economically, culturally and gastronomically literate, I thought it was time for something different...

If You Type "GKC Online" into Google... get directed to the homepage of the Greenwich Kitchen Centre, Virginia.

I had to laugh at this, and I don't think Chesterton would be too displeased. He was a big fan of the family kitchen:

A correspondent has written me an able and interesting letter in the matter of some allusions of mine to the subject of communal kitchens. He defends communal kitchens very lucidly from the standpoint of the calculating collectivist; but, like many of his school, he cannot apparently grasp that there is another test of the whole matter, with which such calculation has nothing at all to do. He knows it would be cheaper if a number of us ate at the same time, so as to use the same table. So it would. It would also be cheaper if a number of us slept at different times, so as to use the same pair of trousers. But the question is not how cheap are we buying a thing, but what are we buying? It is cheap to own a slave. And it is cheaper still to be a slave.

My correspondent also says that the habit of dining out in restaurants, etc., is growing. So, I believe, is the habit of committing suicide. I do not desire to connect the two facts together. It seems fairly clear that a man could not dine at a restaurant because he had just committed suicide; and it would be extreme, perhaps, to suggest that he commits suicide because he has just dined at a restaurant. But the two cases, when put side by side, are enough to indicate the falsity and poltroonery of this eternal modern argument from what is in fashion. The question for brave men is not whether a certain thing is increasing; the question is whether we are increasing it. I dine very often in restaurants because the nature of my trade makes it convenient: but if I thought that by dining in restaurants I was working for the creation of communal meals, I would never enter a restaurant again; I would carry bread and cheese in my pocket or eat chocolate out of automatic machines. For the personal element in some things is sacred. I heard Mr. Will Crooks put it perfectly the other day: "The most sacred thing is to be able to shut your own door."