Paying for sunsets

Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.

– Orthodoxy (1913).

Published in: on July 23, 2014 at 7:25 am  Comments (1)  

“Comparatively innocent”

Those who speak scornfully of the ignorance of the mob do not err as to the fact itself; their error is in not seeing that just as a crowd is comparatively ignorant, so a crowd is comparatively innocent. It will have the old and human faults; but it is not likely to specialise in the special faults of that particular society: because the effort of the strong and successful in all ages is to keep the poor out of society. If the higher castes have developed some special moral beauty or grace, as they occasionally do (for instance, mediæval chivalry), it is likely enough, of course, that the mass of men will miss it. But if they have developed some perversion or over-emphasis, as they much more often do (for instance, the Renaissance poisoning), then it will be the tendency of the mass of men to miss that too. The point might be put in many ways; you may say if you will that the poor are always at the tail of the procession, and that whether they are morally worse or better depends on whether humanity as a whole is proceeding towards heaven or hell. When humanity is going to hell, the poor are always nearest to heaven.

– The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).
Published in: on July 16, 2014 at 10:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

“Every star is like a sudden rocket”

Mysticism in its noblest sense, mysticism as it existed in St John, and Plato, and Paracelsus, and Sir Thomas Browne, is not an exceptionally dark and secret thing, but an exceptionally luminous and open thing. It is in reality too clear for most of us to comprehend, and too obvious for most of us to see. Such an utterance as the utterance that “God is Love” does in reality overwhelm us like an immeasurable landscape on a clear day, like the light of an intolerable summer sun. We may call it a dark saying; but we have an inward knowledge all the time that it is we who are dark…

It is remarkable to notice even in daily life how constant is this impression of the essential rationality of mysticism. If we went up up to a man in the street who happened to be standing opposite a lamppost and addressed him playfully with the words, “Whence did this strange object spring? How did this lean Cyclops with the eye of fire start out of unbegotten night?” it may be generally inferred, with every possible allowance for the temperament of the individual, that he would not regard our remarks as particularly cogent and practical. And yet our surprise at the lamppost would be entirely rational; his habit of taking lampposts for granted would be merely a superstition. The power that makes men accept material phenomena of this universe, its cities, civilizations, and solar systems, is merely a vulgar prejudice, like the prejudice that made them accept cock-fights or the Inquisition. It is the mystic to whom every star is like a sudden rocket, every flower an earthquake of the dust, who is the clear-minded man.

Mysticism, or the sense of the mystery of things, is simply the most gigantic form of common-sense.

– The Daily News, 30 August 1901.

Published in: on July 9, 2014 at 11:04 am  Comments (2)  

On the Death of Gertrude Blogg

Be this thing written, e’re I write
The record of the evil time:
That day my soul repented not
One idle hour, one braggart rhyme.

The grass brought up its million spears,
Aye — for the honour of our star,
Write that no thorn or thistledown
Failed me when I went forth to war.

Old tunes of revelry and sport
Dance on my deaf’ning drums of fight,
The hoarded sunlight of spring days
Blazed for my beacon all the night.

After, the days were grey and long,
But for the hour life battled well,
And all the trumpets of her tower
Answered the horns of Azrael.

We fought, although our dearest fell –
We stood, although the planets reeled –
No sullen doubts, no empty days
Can wipe that blazon from our shield.

And yet to me, doubtless to me –
The miracle of time shall come,
My thoughts grow light as thistledown
Once more: but after years in sum

God keep some mark upon my brow,
Though song be loud, though wine be red,
Of one who met Man’s oldest foe
And did not faint till he had fled.

– (1899).

Gertrude Blogg was the sister of Frances Blogg, whom Chesterton married in 1901. Gertrude died on 2 July 1899 after having been struck in the street by a horse-drawn omnibus.

Published in: on July 2, 2014 at 11:17 am  Leave a Comment  

“They like each other”

There is no kind of comparison possible between a quarrel of man and woman (however right the woman may be) and the other quarrels of slave and master, of rich and poor, or of patriot and invader, with which the Suffragists deluge us every day. The difference is as plain as noon; these other alien groups never came into contact until they came into collision. Races and ranks began with battle, even if they afterwards melted into amity. But the very first fact about the sexes is that they like each other. They seek each other: and awful as are the sins and sorrows that often come of their mating, it was not such things that made them meet. It is utterly astounding to note the way in which modern writers and talkers miss this plain, wide, and overwhelming fact: one would suppose woman a victim and nothing else. By this account ideal, emancipated woman has, age after age, been knocked silly with a stone axe. But really there is no fact to show that ideal, emancipated woman was ever knocked silly; except the fact that she is silly. And that might have arisen in so many other ways. Real responsible woman has never been silly; and any one wishing to knock her would be wise (like the streetboys) to knock and run away. It is ultimately idiotic to compare this prehistoric participation with any royalties or rebellions. Genuine royalties wish to crush rebellions. Genuine rebels wish to destroy kings. The sexes cannot wish to abolish each other; and if we allow them any sort of permanent opposition it will sink into something as base as a party system.

– A Miscellany of Men (1912).

Published in: on June 25, 2014 at 6:42 am  Leave a Comment  

Victorian rationalism and its opponents

[Though] simple Victorian rationalism held the centre, and in a certain sense was the Victorian era, it was assailed on many sides, and had been assailed even before the beginning of that era. The rest of the intellectual history of the time is a series of reactions against it, which come wave after wave. They have succeeded in shaking it, but not in dislodging it from the modern mind. The first of these was the Oxford Movement; a bow that broke when it had let loose the flashing arrow that was Newman. The second reaction was one man; without teachers or pupils — Dickens. The third reaction was a group that tried to create a sort of new romantic Protestantism, to pit against both Reason and Rome — Carlyle, Ruskin, Kingsley, Maurice — perhaps Tennyson.

– The Victorian Age in Literature (1913).
Published in: on June 19, 2014 at 5:38 pm  Comments (1)  

“So tiny a thing”

The very smallness of children makes it possible to regard them as marvels; we seem to be dealing with a new race, only to be seen through a microscope. I doubt if anyone of any tenderness or imagination can see the hand of a child and not be a little frightened of it. It is awful to think of the essential human energy moving so tiny a thing; it is like imagining that human nature could live in the wing of a butterfly or the leaf of a tree. When we look upon lives so human and yet so small, we feel as if we ourselves were enlarged to an embarrassing bigness of stature. We feel the same kind of obligation to these creatures that a deity might feel if he had created something that he could not understand.

– The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on June 11, 2014 at 6:36 am  Comments (1)  

“Like a mere window”

Humility has infinitely deeper roots than any modern men suppose; that it is a metaphysical and, one might almost say, a mathematical virtue. Probably this can best be tested by a study of those who frankly disregard humility and assert the supreme duty of perfecting and expressing one’s self. These people tend, by a perfectly natural process, to bring their own great human gifts of culture, intellect, or moral power to a great perfection, successively shutting out everything that they feel to be lower than themselves.

Now shutting out things is all very well, but it has one simple corollary—that from everything that we shut out we are ourselves shut out. When we shut our door on the wind, it would be equally true to say that the wind shuts its door on us. Whatever virtues a triumphant egoism really leads to, no one can reasonably pretend that it leads to knowledge. Turning a beggar from the door may be right enough, but pretending to know all the stories the beggar might have narrated is pure nonsense; and this is practically the claim of the egoism which thinks that self-assertion can obtain knowledge. A beetle may or may not be inferior to a man—the matter awaits demonstration; but if he were inferior by ten thousand fathoms, the fact remains that there is probably a beetle view of things of which a man is entirely ignorant. If he wishes to conceive that point of view, he will scarcely reach it by persistently revelling in the fact that he is not a beetle. The most brilliant exponent of the egoistic school, Nietzsche, with deadly and honourable logic, admitted that the philosophy of self-satisfaction led to looking down upon the weak, the cowardly, and the ignorant. Looking down on things may be a delightful experience, only there is nothing, from a mountain to a cabbage, that is really seen when it is seen from a balloon. The philosopher of the ego sees everything, no doubt, from a high and rarified heaven; only he sees everything foreshortened or deformed.

Now if we imagine that a man wished truly, as far as possible, to see everything as it was, he would certainly proceed on a different principle. He would seek to divest himself for a time of those personal peculiarities which tend to divide him from the thing he studies. It is as difficult, for example, for a man to examine a fish without developing a certain vanity in possessing a pair of legs, as if they were the latest article of personal adornment. But if a fish is to be approximately understood, this physiological dandyism must be overcome. The earnest student of fish morality will, spiritually speaking, chop off his legs. And similarly the student of birds will eliminate his arms; the frog-lover will with one stroke of the imagination remove all his teeth, and the spirit wishing to enter into all the hopes and fears of jelly-fish will simplify his personal appearance to a really alarming extent. It would appear, therefore, that this great body of ours and all its natural instincts, of which we are proud, and justly proud, is rather an encumbrance at the moment when we attempt to appreciate things as they should be appreciated. We do actually go through a process of mental asceticism, a castration of the entire being, when we wish to feel the abounding good in all things. It is good for us at certain times that ourselves should be like a mere window—as clear, as luminous, and as invisible.

– The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on June 4, 2014 at 6:13 am  Comments (1)  

“Even in divine comedy”

We are always hearing about the limits of realism in art; that is, of this or that respect in which a written thing can never be quite like an acted thing. It seems odd to me that nobody ever mentions the chief chasm of cleavage between the thing written and the thing done. It turns on the old pivot of what theologians call Free Will. The difference is that all events in genuine art are decided: all events in genuine life (in anything worth calling life) are undecided. What is written is written (to quote a Roman governor who showed a taste for epigram at a somewhat unlucky moment); what is written is written; but what is doing need not be done. Every artistic drama is named on the first page a tragedy or a comedy. That is because in every artistic drama the last page is written before the first. But it is not so in that terrific drama which Heaven has given us to play upon this earth, without any punctual cues, with a very invisible, and sometimes inaudible, prompter, and without the faintest notion about when the curtain will come down. If the drama of real life is more dreadful, it has at least one agreeable quality; it is more uncertain. Every human life begins in tragedy, for it begins in travail. But every human life may end in comedy — even in divine comedy. It may end in a joy beyond all our jokes; in that cry across the chasm, “Fear not, I have conquered the world.”

– The Illustrated London News, 16 March 2012.

Published in: on May 28, 2014 at 6:53 am  Leave a Comment  

“The fish forgets the sea”

Religion has had to provide that longest and strangest telescope — the telescope through which we could see the star upon which we dwelt. For the mind and eyes of the average man this world is as lost as Eden and as sunken as Atlantis. There runs a strange law through the length of human history—that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility. This is the great fall, the fall by which the fish forgets the sea, the ox forgets the meadow, the clerk forgets the city, every man forgets his environment and, in the fullest and most literal sense, forgets himself. This is the real fall of Adam, and it is a spiritual fall. It is a strange thing that many truly spiritual men, such as General Gordon, have actually spent some hours in speculating upon the precise location of the Garden of Eden. Most probably we are in Eden still. It is only our eyes that have changed.

– The Defendant (1901).

Published in: on May 21, 2014 at 11:58 am  Comments (4)  
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