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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Reflecting on Words: More on Chesterton

For the past few days, I've immersed myself in Gilbert Magazine, the bi-monthly publication of the American Chesterton Society, which means I've been thinking about words. I doubt Chesterton ever made a statement or used a word without having a clear thought behind it. Woe is me, I cannot claim the same thing. I often make silly or stupid statements when my mouth is running before my brain is in gear. But there is a cure for that: READ MORE CHESTERTON. And then reflect on it.

Today, after reading Fr. James Schall's essay in the Nov/Dec issue (alas, I'm way behind as usual), I was intrigued enough to look up Chesterton's essay, The Silliness of Educated People. What a gem! His analysis of the statement of a British M.P. is hilarious:
Now and then one gets a sentence of monstrous and entangled unintelligence; and it is remarkable to observe that it is almost always quoted from some person of social importance -- a man in what is called a good position; a man with letters after his name. In this case the man was a Member of Parliament; and the words that came forth from him were these: "Any law which enables a man to resist temptation by preventing him from doing wrong, is a good law."

Now one does not know where to begin to untwist the tortured nonsense  of those few words. I am not speaking of the rightness or wrongness of what the man really meant. I know what he really meant; he meant, "All public houses ought to be shut up." This is a sinful and wicked thing to say, but it is not in the least illogical or contradictory. But consider what the M.P. actually did say, and separate its strands of unreason. First of all, it is obvious that, if you prevent a man from doing wrong, you do not enable him to resist temptation. It may happen to be quite right to prevent him from doing wrong, but you are certainly preventing him from resisting temptation as well. Then consider the amazing sweep of the generalisation, made without the mildest consideration of its consequences: any law that anyhow, along with any other results, prevents a man from doing wrong, is a good law. A law to cut off all our heads, for instance, would certainly prevent us from doing wrong for a considerable time after the experiment. Sewing up all our mouths would prevent us from telling lies; cutting off all our legs would prevent us from kicking children; putting out all our eyes would prevent us from reading loose and low literature, for I do not think that many risqué works are produced in raised letters for the use of the blind. But I do not think that we could say our headless, legless, or armless condition "enabled us to resist temptation." A public man who says such a sentence as that on a platform is behaving quite as irresponsibly as if he were drunk on a platform....The sentence as printed is perfectly silly, and it shows a real levity and lack of public spirit in those who say and who print such things. I have been called chaotic; and there is no sort of doubt about my being untidy. But I never wrote a postcard without thinking a little more of what I was writing than this legislator thinks when he is legislating. And I never had, or lost, or ate, or drank, or smoked, or wore anything quite so messy as that remark.
Chesterton goes on to describe his story as evidence that the educated classes have "struck thinking" as the uneducated have "struck working," and that the leisured classes are too leisured to use their brains. He ends his essay with a call for a principle of the "Minimum Mind as well as the Minimum Wage." Good advice we all would do well to practice.

Can you imagine Chesterton's observations on a statement by Nancy Pelosi or Joe Biden or many members of the Republican establishment? What a gift it would be to have his magnifying glass to examine the nonsense that passes today for intelligence. He would certainly make mincemeat of Richard Dawkins and Pete Singer. The sad truth of modern society is that most of what is written today is "sound and fury signifying nothing," but that many people will swallow any nonsense from a celebrity or person of prominence. Now if only that person of prominence were Chesterton!

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