Orthodoxy

If it is difficult to review a book that is nonfiction and follows a less-than-linear outline, then it is doubly difficult to review such a book from the Christian apologetics genre.  And, naturally, one must explain a rating of 5 out of 5 stars.

G. K. Chesterton‘s Orthodoxy is an account of how he came to hold Christian orthodox beliefs.  By the term “orthodoxy” (the lowercase ‘o’), he is not referring to a branch or denomination of the Church, but rather “. . . the Apostles’ Creed, as understood by everybody calling himself Christian until a very short time ago and the general historic conduct of those who held such a creed.”

I happened to read Orthodoxy during or just after my 20th cent. Brit. History course, which included references to H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and other people of letters.  There was not one mention of Chesterton, despite his friendship with both Wells and Shaw; he does not fit neatly into the agenda presented in such a history course.  And this, even though Orthodoxy does not pose as an opposing argument to atheism or “unorthodoxy” – Chesterton’s focus seems more to explain than proselytize.

In this very fact, Orthodoxy is made more persuasive than it might otherwise have been.  I think it is best read as simply one man’s reasons for his Christian faith, and as such there is a lot that even non-Christians can gain from reading it.  Apart from answering the question of “Why do you believe?”, Chesterton expresses some powerful points of his philosophy in really excellent writing, using his classic humorous wit and analogies.  His style does read like a rambling college lecture, but in a good way, especially for those of us who dread the typical “boring lecture” format of nonfiction.

Interestingly, Chesterton, like C. S. Lewis, did not embrace Christianity until adulthood.  His answer to “why believe?” is based greatly on his own experience and reasoning, which may or may not convince non-Christians (but again, the book is more an autobiography than anything else).  Personally, I felt like I should have read this a long time ago, not only because it is a Christian classic, but because it earned that status.  Chesterton gives a fascinating perspective on topics like logic, reason, and miracles – topics that are not always easy to dissect.  This is the sort of book I would re-read every year to fully analyze, but even on the first reading, I found that so much of my own Christian “philosophy” had already been put into solidified words in Orthodoxy.

The Apostles’ Creed

I BELIEVE in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth:
    And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary: Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried: He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead: He ascended into heaven, And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty: From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
    I believe in the Holy Ghost: The holy Catholic Church; The Communion of Saints: The Forgiveness of sins: The Resurrection of the body: And the Life everlasting. Amen.

Eugenics and Other Evils

Berlin Naturkundemuseum DNA
By LoKiLeCh [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons

Of G. K. Chesterton‘s several thousand essays, the one I stumbled across most suddenly on Project Gutenberg was Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State.  I do not go out of my way to read essays, but the topic had been on my mind recently and, of course, Chesterton’s nonfic is even more renowned than his novels.  I thought this would be a good place to start.

Eugenics, in short, is “the study of methods of improving the quality of the human race, esp by selective breeding” (Collins English Dictionary).  The most well-known example of eugenics on a large scale took place in Nazi Germany; however, a more historically obscure example was the support for and practice of eugenics by doctors in the US and Great Britain, pre-WWI–and, in the case of the US, even up through the 70s.

Background is key in Chesterton’s book.  I must admit I was hoping for an argument that would deal with eugenics on a broader scale, for all eras and conceivable counterarguments, but Chesterton–wisely, for his purposes–limited his audience to Britain in the 1920s.  He does not hide his contempt for eugenics, and some of the “other evils” he discusses are socialism and, even more so, capitalism. As with many ideologies, it is impossible to judge them in the past by what they are in the present.  Likewise, Chesterton’s opinions need to be read in context–the British class system was still alive and well, ca. 1922, and Keynesianism, a more benevolent form of capitalism, would not gain popularity until years later.

I felt that Chesterton rambled a lot more in the second half of the book, hence 4 out of 5 stars.  The first part of the book was much more focused, interesting, and brilliantly written.  Two excellent arguments that particularly stood out to me were the idea that a government could become anarchic (sounds like an oxymoron, but actually makes sense) and also that two “perfectly healthy” people may not necessarily have “perfectly healthy” children.

This latter point was also a doubt of H. G. Wells, who nevertheless supported eugenics.  Chesterton pointed out that even eugenists could not answer this question, and he berated them for holding overall very vague ideas of what they wanted done.  He also questioned the notion that there could be anyone qualified to evaluate other people’s so-called “feeble-mindedness”.

In summary, I recommend this book, but more on a historical than universal basis.  There are definitely some arguments that can be applied today, but as a whole, Chesterton was writing to a more specific audience.

Favorite quotes:

“…evil always takes advantage of ambiguity.”

“…there has in all ages been a disastrous alliance between abnormal innocence and abnormal sin.”

“They cannot believe that men in hats and coats like themselves can be preparing a revolution; all their Victorian philosophy has taught them that such transformations are always slow.”

“The modern world is insane, not so much because it admits the abnormal as because it cannot recover the normal.”

“But as a vision the thing is plausible and even rational.  It is rational, and it is wrong.”

“The chief feature of our time is the meekness of the mob and the madness of the government.”

“We are everywhere urged by humanitarians to help lame dogs over stiles–though some humanitarians, it is true, seem to feel a colder interest in the case of lame men and women.”

“Thus Midas fell into a fallacy about the currency; and soon had reason to become something more than a Bimetallist.”

“They have now added all the bureaucratic tyrannies of a Socialist state to the old plutocratic tyrannies of a Capitalist State.”

“We can no more analyse such peace in the soul than we can conceive in our heads the whole enormous and dizzy equilibrium by which, out of suns roaring like infernos and heavens toppling like precipices, He has hanged the world upon nothing.”

The Club of Queer Trades

If there’s one thing that ticks me off about this book, it’s this: The Club of Queer Trades is a parody of Sherlock Holmes.  From the protagonist, Basil Grant–who scoffs at facts–to his younger brother Rupert–a wannabe private detective patrolling lamp-lit London–G. K. Chesterton takes a not-so-subtle jab at the Sherlock Holmes series and the science of deduction.  Basil Grant’s tools of the trade?  A touch of insanity, healthy intuition, and uproarious laughter.

In fact, I can forgive Chesterton and his maniacal character just for the laughs I got reading this book. Chesterton’s word choice is very quirky and witty throughout most of the six short stories and especially the first half.  If you’re looking for a light read set in Victorian London, you could give this a try. 

The basic plotline is this: Rupert, Basil, and Mr Swinburne (the narrator/Watson) never agree on who is a suspicious-looking character.  And if either Rupert or Basil sees a suspicious-looking character, they are determined to hunt them down and catch them red-handed in their crimes.  Much awkwardness ensues when first impressions turn out to be a far cry from the truth.   I think my favorite was “The Painful Fall of a Great Reputation”, involving “the wickedest man in England” (apparently not Charles Augustus Milverton).

Rupert, by the way, is a great character, for all his “erroneous conclusions.” I mean, if this were a typical detective story, he’d be a good detective.  The true solutions, however, turn out to be so fantastically absurd that Rupert fails before he begins.

4 out of 5 stars for The Club of Queer Trades.  Recommended even for Sherlock Holmes devotees, like me.  There’s a free, excellent audiobook by David Barnes at Librivox, which I listened to for the first 1 1/2 stories.

Chesterton and Conrad on Facts

In the last few days, I’ve been perusing two radically different books: G. K. Chesterton’s The Club of Queer Trades (a first-rate audiobook) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (my beloved publicity copy).  The first is a humorous collection of adventures in Victorian London.  The second is a profound, psychological study set in Africa under British imperialism.  Two books could not be more unlike.  But while I was reviewing some of the more outstanding quotes today, it struck me both books have similar things to say…on the subject of facts.

It’s a weird coincidence.  I have a habit of reading multiple books at once, but between books of different genre, there is rarely such a complete, simultaneous overlap of message/meaning.  If it doesn’t bore you to tears, read the excerpts below and tell me if I’m just seeing things:

   “Facts,” murmured Basil, like one mentioning some strange, far-off animals, “how facts obscure the truth. I may be silly—in fact, I’m off my head—but I never could believe in that man—what’s his name, in those capital stories?—Sherlock Holmes. Every detail points to something, certainly; but generally to the wrong thing. Facts point in all directions, it seems to me, like the thousands of twigs on a tree. It’s only the life of the tree that has unity and goes up—only the green blood that springs, like a fountain, at the stars.”
* * *
    “But, after all,” I said, “this is very fanciful—perfectly absurd. Look at the mere facts. You have never seen the man before, you—”
    “Oh, the mere facts,” he cried out in a kind of despair. “The mere facts! Do you really admit—are you still so sunk in superstitions, so clinging to dim and prehistoric altars, that you believe in facts? Do you not trust an immediate impression?
– Chesterton

   For a time I would feel I belonged still to a world of straightforward facts; but the feeling would not last long. Something would turn up to scare it away. Once, I remember, we came upon a man-of-war anchored off the coast. There wasn’t even a shed there, and she was shelling the bush. It appears the French had one of their wars going on thereabouts. Her ensign dropped limp like a rag; the muzzles of the long six-inch guns stuck out all over the low hull; the greasy, slimy swell swung her up lazily and let her down, swaying her thin masts. In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech — and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceeding, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight; and it was not dissipated by somebody on board assuring me earnestly there was a camp of natives — he called them enemies! — hidden out of sight somewhere.
* * *
I believed it in the same way one of you might believe there are inhabitants in the planet Mars. I knew once a Scotch sailmaker who was certain, dead sure, there were people in Mars. If you asked him for some idea how they looked and behaved, he would get shy and mutter something about ‘walking on all-fours.’ If you as much as smiled, he would — though a man of sixty — offer to fight you. I would not have gone so far as to fight for Kurtz, but I went for him near enough to a lie. You know I hate, detest, and can’t bear a lie, not because I am straighter than the rest of us, but simply because it appalls me. There is a taint of death, a flavour of mortality in lies — which is exactly what I hate and detest in the world — what I want to forget. It makes me miserable and sick, like biting something rotten would do. Temperament, I suppose. Well, I went near enough to it by letting the young fool there believe anything he liked to imagine as to my influence in Europe. I became in an instant as much of a pretence as the rest of the bewitched pilgrims. This simply because I had a notion it somehow would be of help to that Kurtz whom at the time I did not see — you understand. He was just a word for me. I did not see the man in the name any more than you do. Do you see him? Do you see the story? Do you see anything?
– Conrad