Monday, December 15, 2014

The virtue that renews the cosmos

A quiet hour with some writings of G.K. Chesterton in one hand, and a glass of ale in the other, is one of life's exquisite pleasures. Add to that some cheddar as sharp as the great man's wit and you have the makings of a memorable evening. If there were a dictionary entry on the expression "reading for pleasure" it ought to have a picture of Chesterton next to it. Aphorisms burst from his pen like Fourth of July fireworks. He's the Babe Ruth of polemicists. He wins you over to his point of view not by logic, but by magic and romance. Yet, once he's won you over, you see that the logic was hiding there all along.

The other night I read the article "Paganism and Mr. Lowes Dickinson" which is the twelfth in a collection of essays published as Heretics. It's part of Chesterton's enduring relevance that it matters not a whit whether one knows Lowes Dickinson from Emily Dickinson. 

Chesterton's argument here is two-fold: that the modern conception of Paganism is incorrect ("Pagans are depicted as above all things inebriate and lawless, whereas they were above all things reasonable and respectable") and that Christianity is the one thing that can still be said to be of pagan origin ("If any one wants to hold the end of a chain which really goes back to the heathen mysteries, he had better take hold of a festoon of flowers at Easter or a string of sausages at Christmas"). Christianity adopted the pagan "rational" virtues such as justice and temperance, but to them added the "three mystical virtues" -- faith, hope and charity. The former are the "sad" and "rationalistic" virtues the latter are the "gay and exuberant" virtues. The pagan virtues are the "reasonable virtues" but the Christian virtues are "in their essence as unreasonable as they can be." In other words, each involves a paradox.

Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that. But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.


Whatever may be the meaning of the contradiction, it is the fact that the only kind of hope that is of any use in a battle is a hope that denies arithmetic. Whatever may be the meaning of the contradiction, it is the fact that the only kind of charity which any weak spirit wants, or which any generous spirit feels, is the charity which forgives the sins that are like scarlet. Whatever may be the meaning of faith, it must always mean a certainty about something we cannot prove. Thus, for instance, we believe by faith in the existence of other people.

Chesterton continues to scale the rhetorical heights by bringing in that other cardinal Christian virtue, the one that trumps all others -- humility. It was humility that transformed reasonable pagans into exuberant Christians. Humility gave birth to joy. The pagan set out on an admirable quest to enjoy himself, but in the end made the surprising discovery "that a man cannot enjoy himself and continue to enjoy anything else." He had thought that "the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by extending our ego to infinity, the truth is that the fullest possible enjoyment is to be found by reducing our ego to zero." Civilization had to discover humility, or die. For humility is the virtue that's "for ever renewing the earth and the stars."

The curse that came before history has laid on us all a tendency to be weary of wonders. If we saw the sun for the first time it would be the most fearful and beautiful of meteors. Now that we see it for the hundredth time we call it, in the hideous and blasphemous phrase of Wordsworth, "the light of common day." We are inclined to increase our claims. We are inclined to demand six suns, to demand a blue sun, to demand a green sun. Humility is perpetually putting us back in the primal darkness. There all light is lightning, startling and instantaneous. Until we understand that original dark, in which we have neither sight nor expectation, we can give no hearty and childlike praise to the splendid sensationalism of things. The terms "pessimism" and "optimism," like most modern terms, are unmeaning. But if they can be used in any vague sense as meaning something, we may say that in this great fact pessimism is the very basis of optimism. The man who destroys himself creates the universe. To the humble man, and to the humble man alone, the sun is really a sun; to the humble man, and to the humble man alone, the sea is really a sea. When he looks at all the faces in the street, he does not only realize that men are alive, he realizes with a dramatic pleasure that they are not dead.

Behind this splendid prose one begins to see the outline of a figure that embodied the perfect principle of humility so sought after by the ancients. A man. Indeed, one who called himself the Son of Man. The Apostle tells us this God-man emptied himself -- made himself nothing -- so that he could identify with the oppressed race of Adam. Furthermore, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. By this humble act a new humanity was created, and by it one day the cosmos will be renewed. Incredible, isn't it?

Elsewhere Chesterton exclaimed:

When a tree really looks like a man our knees knock under us. And when the whole universe looks like a man we fall on our faces.