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Part Two of "Chesterton and the Delight of
Truth" | James V. Schall, S.J. | Part
The Logic and Excitement of Orthodoxy
The title of Orthodoxy means literally right opinion. First of
all, it implies that there can be a wrong opinion and that the difference
between the two makes considerable difference in how we live. It means
further that how we live is directly affected by how we think. Almost
a hundred years after Chesterton, we live in an age that doubts everything
about itself that the mind can know the truth, even that it ought
to know the truth, that it ought to know anything. We advocate a kind
of relativism or multiculturalism that, far from simply pointing to the
myriad differences in the reality of time and space, maintains that nothing
is certain, that there are no standards, particularly no human standards.
Therefore, because there are no standards, no truth, we are said to be
"free." In this system, it is not the truth that makes us free.
We make ourselves free by denying any criterion outside of ourselves.
Everything is permitted because not only is nothing known, but nothing
can be known. We choose our choices so that we are enslaved by what we
Second, orthodoxy implies that it is possible to establish what right
opinion is by examining all opinion, especially wrong opinion. Chestertons
favorite book list seems to have been the famous Index of Forbidden
Books. It was from errors in the most popular and most scientific
positions that he found the raw material of truth. "All I had hitherto
heard of Christian theology had alienated me from it. I was a pagan at
the age of twelve, and a complete agnostic by the age of sixteen.... I
never read a line of Christian apologetics." Nietzsche was a favorite
author if only because he put what was wrong so well. Literally, as he
tells us, Chesterton learned truth from the weirdness of the constant
error he read.
On the basis of the impossibility of what theories the great modern philosophers
used to explain reality, Chesterton set out to found his own "heresy,"
as he delighted in calling it. He himself, however, as he conceived it,
was the ultimate "heretic"! And when he found the truth, he
discovered to his astonishment that it was invented some eighteen hundred
years before his time and was called "orthodoxy." He was glad
that he did not have to invent the "heresy of orthodoxy" himself
but could simply recognize it as already having been invented a
fact that made him even more curious. Invented by whom?
Chesterton was constantly amused by the fact that the most true and delightful
teaching was the one to which most opposition was found. It was quite
contrary to what was actually taught in the modern schools. Yet, "there
never was anything so perilous or so exciting as orthodoxy," he reflects.
It was "perilous" because it affirmed that our choices were
infinitely serious and potentially dangerous; it was "exciting"
because it showed us that our choices could lead either to damnation or
to what was infinitely worthwhile. Chesterton defended the possibility
of excitement by defending the doctrine of free will and the fact that
it could choose rightly or wrongly, but freely, not necessarily. We may
not want to have this choice, which logically means that we may not want
to be what we are. But the fact is that denying our freedom leads not
to excitement and drama, but to dullness and indifference. Chester ton
preferred the world of freedom and excitement with its dangers and its
Chesterton as a young man never heard of Christian truth, but he knew
that what was proposed, especially against the faith, on examination could
not be true. He could understand contradictions and therefore errors.
Chesterton was converted intellectually by the heretics, not by the orthodox.
He could not at first understand the odd nature of the opposition to the
classic faith, but what he did notice made him wonder, finally, if it
might be true because it could not be all the contradictory things said
against it. "Men who begin to fight the Church for the sake of freedom
and humanity end by flinging away freedom and humanity if only they may
fight the Church."
This was, I say, not something he expected as a matter of theory, but
something he observed as a matter of fact. He reflected that something
against which every sort of accusation is made, even if it be contradicted
by another accusation, might be very odd indeed, but it might also be
the normal. For to the abnormal, it is only the normal that looks most
grotesque. Somehow most modern philosophy seemed to picture an utterly
abnormal world that bore little relation to what was true.
The Meaning of Sins Existence
One of the chapters in Orthodoxy is called the suicide of thought.
Roughly, this means that no one can think if he maintains that his organ
of thinking cannot know anything or that his organ of will cannot decide
anything about what is known. Moreover, no one allows his organ of deciding
to decide anything if there are, on the basis of what he knows to be true,
certain things that will be forbidden to him. If it should so happen that
some things are right and true, we may just not want to know about them
if we suspect that they might interfere with what we have already chosen
to do. When we act on this failure to know what we should know, we sin,
to use the classic word that indicates both the seriousness of our thoughts
and the choices that follow from them. Not surprisingly, then, when asked,
the reason Chesterton himself gave for his final conversion to the faith
was that he wanted to get rid of his sins. He knew that the structure
of reality was such that they were possible, and he knew himself well
enough to know that he, no one else, committed them.
Chesterton liked to talk about sin, no doubt because it was so serious
and so common. Indeed, in his Father
Brown stories, he liked to write about it. He thought we should be
sinning all the time, not by actually murdering or stealing or committing
adultery, of course, but by writing about such aberrations. Though he
loved the sinner, he did not have any sympathy for those who refused to
understand the reality or depths of sin. He often suggested, furthermore,
that those who know most about sin are not the sinners themselves but
the pure of heart, those who have decided not to commit it. The knowledge
of sin and its attraction is not itself a sin but a necessary element
in our understanding ourselves. But the existence of sin and its terribleness
was part of the risk of the universe that contained the finite free creature.
If God wanted to create a finite person who could love Him freely, He
had to accept, as in all love, the possibility of being rejected.
Chesterton was acutely aware that what made the universe particularly interesting
was not the existence of sin in it, with its pre-condition of free will,
but the possibility and condition of its forgiveness. In determinist theory,
"the cosmos went on forever, but not in its wildest constellation could
there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness
or free will." Free will meant that we could sin and were responsible
for it. It also meant that we could be grateful for existence itself. Forgiveness
meant that even if we sinned, what we sinned against could forgive us, that
sin was personal both on our parts and on the part of what we sinned against.
"Such ... was the joy of man; ... happiness depended on not doing
something which you could at any moment do, but which, very often, it was
not obvious why you should not do it." All romance depended on not
doing what ought not to be done. Sometimes on crucial things, we simply
had to obey. "Thou shalt not ...."
Chesterton, moreover, thought that the doctrine of original sin grounded
democracy and was the only reason we could give for not absolutely trusting
a ruling elite. "The unpopular parts of Christianity (like original
sin) turn out when examined to be the very props of the people." Original
sin explained why we needed to bind even our rulers by law, morality, and
sanction. They too were sinners and lived in the worst possible occasion
for sin the life of power, publicity, and comfort. "In the best
Utopia, I must be prepared for the fall of any man, in any position, at
any moment...." But no matter in what sort of society or situation
in which man lived, sin is always caused by will, not by something external
to us. No arrangement of society or state, contrary to Rousseau and his
tradition, would ever eliminate the possibility of sin and wrong doing from
among us, especially from the elite. "For she (the Church) has maintained
from the beginning that the danger was not in mans environment, but
in man." This awareness of the possibility of sin in anyone, even rulers,
is one fundamental element of any charter of liberty, of any understanding
What is surprising at first sight is the amount of attention that Chesterton
gives in Orthodoxy to questions of sin, original sin, and free will.
These three are, no doubt, essential doctrines of the faith and its philosophic
support. If there is such a thing as sin, the deliberate choice of a thought
or action against God and man, there must first be a free will to choose
such thought or action. Moreover, it is clear that from time immemorial,
man has had difficulty in living virtuously, even when he wanted to and
chose to do so. Indeed, this difficulty in living virtuously will seem to
justify theories which maintain that sin is the normal condition of mankind,
so we should not worry about it but expect it, even excuse it, make it "normal"
because it is so frequent. Chestertons response to this position is
again amusing: "Men may have had concubines as long as they have had
horses still they were not part of him if they were sinful."
The frequency of any sin does not somehow indicate its rightness but its
All That Is Is Created in Joy
The greatest thing about Orthodoxy, however, is its enthusiasm for
and delight in what is.
The structure of Orthodoxy is cast in the form of the adventure of
a man who set out around the world to discover some strange land. Finally,
his ship reaches this distant land; only there he discovers that it is England,
his original home. The analogy, of course, is to Chestertons own spiritual
adventure in discovering orthodoxy to be the home he was looking for all
along only he did not recognize it right before his very eyes. One of the
mysteries of his life, Chesterton tells us, was why he could be "homesick
at home." This homesickness-at-home is a most striking image, for Chesterton
loved home and thought it the noblest word in the language. Yet, he understood
that even when we have everything, even when we do not sin, we feel that
there is something missing to us. We seek our true home even at home.
In his musings about what it is we want, what sort of freedom is the greatest,
even at home, Chesterton argued that it is the freedom to bind ourselves.
"I would never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave
to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself."
This freedom of binding oneself was for Chesterton the key to the highest
wisdom about the most basic things of life. "I could never mix in the
common murmur of that rising generation against monogamy, because no restrictions
on sex seemed so odd and unexpected as sex itself... Keeping to one woman
is a small price for so much as seeing one woman. To complain that I could
only be married once was like complaining that I could only be born once."
Chesterton was capable of elevating this principle to the more universal
idea that our individual uniquenesses, in being bound by love, lie at the
heart of all true relationships. "I want to love my neighbor not because
he is I, but precisely because he is not I. I want to adore the world, not
as one likes a looking-glass, because it is ones self, but as one
loves a woman, because she is entirely different."
And because God too is entirely different and stands at the heart of all
binding promises, of all freedom, it is possible to love Him because we
know we are first chosen, that being ourselves is not enough. Our ideas
of God decide our ideas of the world. "By insisting especially on the
transcendence of God we get wonder, curiosity, moral and political adventure,
righteous indignation, Christendom. Insisting that God is inside man, man
is always inside himself. By insisting that God transcends man, man has
transcended himself." In transcending himself, in what he might expect
of himself, man does not cease to be himself. We do not become "gods."
We love God and this is our joy. Eternal life comes precisely to us, as
Chesterton ends Orthodoxy by suggesting that the only thing that
the Incarnate God did not show us while He was on earth was his "mirth,"
his joy. He did not show us this mirth because we could not bear it now,
not because this was not of the essence of His being. "The mass of
men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the
big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native
to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the
fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. ... Joy ... is the
gigantic secret of the Christian."
This at last is the secret of Chesterton and of his Orthodoxy. All that
is is created in joy because this is what God is. Life is our seeking
to find wherein joy is our home. And we can finally only have a home if
we bind freely ourselves. Only this philosophy, this "heresy"
of "orthodoxy" which Chesterton discovered and in discovering
leaves its gift of sanity to us "has again and again said the
thing that does not seem to be true, but is true." Ultimately, this
truth, in its splendor, is the delight of orthodoxy.
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of
Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing, Playing, Believing, Lecturing,
Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing, and A Student's Guide to Liberal
Read more of his essays on his
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