Plus ça change…

I’ve just finished reading Orthodoxy, by G. K. Chesterton. What’s most fascinating to me is that it was written over 100 years ago and yet the issues that he’s discussing – materialism, evolution, determinism, conflicts fought in the name of religion, morality in the absence of divine guidance, etc. – are all exactly the same things that are shaping the debate today. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

Here are a few selected excerpts:

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Chesterton on relativism:

“Every day one comes across somebody who says that of course his view may not be the right one.  Of course his view must be the right one, or it is not his view.  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 sceptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.”

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…on the faith of rationality:

“Reason is itself a matter of faith.  It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.  If you are merely a sceptic, you must sooner or later ask yourself the question, ‘Why should ANYTHING go right; even observation and deduction? Why should not good logic be as misleading as bad logic? They are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape?’ The young sceptic says, ‘I have a right to think for myself.’ But the old sceptic, the complete sceptic, says, ‘I have no right to think for myself.  I have no right to think at all.'”

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…on the philosophical aspects of evolution:

“Evolution is either an innocent scientific description of how certain earthly things came about; or, if it is anything more than this, it is an attack upon thought itself.  If evolution destroys anything, it does not destroy religion but rationalism.  If evolution simply means that a positive thing called an ape turned very slowly into a positive thing called a man, then it is stingless for the most orthodox; for a personal God might just as well do things slowly as quickly, especially if, like the Christian God, he were outside time. But if it means anything more, it means that there is no such thing as an ape to change, and no such thing as a man for him to change into.  It means that there is no such thing as a thing. At best, there is only one thing, and that is a flux of everything and anything.  This is an attack not upon the faith, but upon the mind; you cannot think if there are no things to think about.”

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…on knee-jerk scepticism:

“The mere questioner has knocked his head against the limits of human thought; and cracked it… It is vain for eloquent atheists to talk of the great truths that will be revealed if once we see free thought begin. We have seen it end.  It has no more questions to ask; it has questioned itself. You cannot call up any wilder vision than a city in which men ask themselves if they have any selves.  You cannot fancy a more sceptical world than that in which men doubt if there is a world. It might certainly have reached its bankruptcy more quickly and cleanly if it had not been feebly hampered by the application of indefensible laws of blasphemy or by the absurd pretence that modern England is Christian.  But it would have reached the bankruptcy anyhow.  Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are an old minority than because they are a new one.  Free thought has exhausted its own freedom… We have no more questions left to ask. We have looked for questions in the darkest corners and on the wildest peaks.  We have found all the questions that can be found. It is time we gave up looking for questions and began looking for answers.”

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…on the history of the Church:

“…in history I found that Christianity, so far from belonging to the Dark Ages, was the one path across the Dark Ages that was not dark. It was a shining bridge connecting two shining civilizations. If any one says that the faith arose in ignorance and savagery the answer is simple:  it didn’t. It arose in the Mediterranean civilization in the full summer of the Roman Empire.  The world was swarming with sceptics, and pantheism was as plain as the sun, when Constantine nailed the cross to the mast.  It is perfectly true that afterwards the ship sank; but it is far more extraordinary that the ship came up again:  repainted and glittering, with the cross still at the top… If our faith had been a mere fad of the fading empire, fad would have followed fad in the twilight, and if the civilization ever re-emerged (and many such have never re-emerged) it would have been under some new barbaric flag. But the Christian Church was the last life of the old society and was also the first life of the new.  She took the people who were forgetting how to make an arch and she taught them to invent the Gothic arch… How can we say that the Church wishes to bring us back into the Dark Ages? The Church was the only thing that ever brought us out of them.”

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Related posts:

Chesterton on Nature

Chesterton on Miracles

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6 thoughts on “Plus ça change…

  1. Pingback: Chesterton on Nature « Spiritual Meanderings

  2. Pingback: Chesterton on Miracles « Spiritual Meanderings

    • Yup – that’s where I pulled these passags from. I bought a paperback version to read on the train, but I didn’t feel like typing out the passages by hand… 🙂

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