A Prophet in His Time?

Recovering from “trench fever” in the middle of World War I, a young atheist named C. S. Lewis encountered the writing of G. K. Chesterton for the first time. He later wrote of the experience in his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy:

I had never heard of [Chesterton] and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such and immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors. It would almost seem that Providence, or some “second cause’ of a very obscure kind, quite overrules our previous tastes when it decides to bring two minds together. Liking an author may be as involuntary as falling in love.
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In reading Chesterton, as in reading [George] MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere—“Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.

A journalist, essayist, playwright, poet, and Christian apologist, Chesterton was a staunch proponent of what he called simply “Orthodoxy.” As the above quotations suggest, his writings played a significant part in Lewis’ own conversion. The latter’s glad endorsement was one of the first among many encouragements I have had to read Chesterton, but only recently have I finally taken the plunge. Midway through my first Chesterton book (Orthodoxy), I’m already convinced of his value, even as I’ve been occasionally bewildered—in a more traditional sense of the word: becoming lost in a wild, even fantastical country—by the pungency and imagination of his prose. (It’s certainly enough for me to look past his occasional but pointed jabs at Calvin and his theology—Chesterton’s own path eventually took him through the Anglican church to Roman Catholicism.)

All that serves as introduction to the fact that, in reading Orthodoxy’s third chapter, “The Suicide of Thought,” I was struck by the fact that Chesterton’s observations, surely already powerful in his own day (the book was originally published in 1908), have retained their force in ours. The ideas that he addressed had already firmly taken root, but they have bloomed more widely in the intervening years, giving the chapter an almost prophetic force. At the same time, Chesterton’s obvious literary gifts allow it to burst with proverbial vividness. Even without digesting everything on the first pass, there’s feeling that one has just read something that warrants attention and will repay careful thought. You can judge for yourself from a few excerpts:

But what we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled on 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 a man 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.
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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 where too proud to be convinced; but these are too humble to be convinced. The meek may inherit the earth; but the modern skeptics are too meek even to claim their inheritance.
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Akin to these is the false theory of progress, which maintains that we alter the test instead of pass the test. We often hear it said, for instance, “What is right in one age is wrong in another.” This is quite reasonable, if it means that there is a fixed aim, and that certain methods attain at certain times and not at other times. If women, say, desire to be elegant, it may be that they are improved at one time by growing fatter and at another time by growing thinner. But you cannot say that they are improved by ceasing to wish to be elegant and beginning to wish to be oblong. If the standard changes, how can there be improvement, which implies a standard?
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The main point here, however, is that this idea of a fundamental alteration in the standard is one of the things that make thought about the past or future simply impossible. The theory of complete change of standards in human history does not merely deprive us of the pleasure of honouring our fathers; it deprives us even of the more modern and aristocratic pleasure of despising them.
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The pragmatist tells a man to think what he must think and never mind the Absolute. But precisely one of the things that the 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 of human needs is to be something more than a pragmatist.
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Militant atheists are still unjustly persecuted; but rather because they are an old minority than because they are a new one.
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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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A brilliant anarchist like Mr. John Davidson feels an irritation against ordinary morality, and therefore he invokes will—will to do anything. He only wants humanity to want something. But humanity does want something. It wants ordinary morality. He rebels against the law and tells us to will something or anything. But we have willed something. We have willed the law against which he rebels.
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[Davidson] tells us to have nothing to do with “Thou shall not”; but it is surely obvious that “Thou shall not” is only one of the necessary corollaries of “I will.” “I will go to the Lord Mayor’s Show, and thou shall not stop me.” Anarchism adjures us to be bold creative artists, and care for no laws or limits. Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame. If you draw a giraffe, you must draw him with a long neck. If, in your bold creative way, you hold yourself free to draw a giraffe with a short neck, you will really find that you are not free to draw a giraffe.

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