Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Chesterton reflection #1

I have started re-reading GK Chesterton's book Orthodoxy. I had forgotten how many key lines it contained. He was a natural quote maker, and I am going to celebrate some of the most poignant passages with short reflections in the next few entries.

"The modern world is not evil; in some ways the modern world is far too good. It is full of wild and wasted virtues. When a religious scheme is shattered (as Christianity was shattered at the Reformation), it is not merely the vices that are let loose. The vices are, indeed, let loose, and they wander and do damage. But the virtues are let loose also; and the virtues do more terrible damage. The modern world is full of the old Chrstian virtues gone mad. The virtues have gone made because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful."

Here Chesterton is addressing something that has really only come to full fruition since his time was passed. Today we have the phenomena of benevolent secularism. That is to say, we see the majority of the industrial world following an ethos that can only be described as an emotionally dictated charitable Humanism.

Chesterton's point has become even more acute since these same people began collectively claiming to be more moral than their religious counterparts. Many of them will tell you, without pause, that they simply do not need religion in order to be good. Given that many of them are nice people, and do practice some fine personal works, it is a difficult issue to confront.

Yet although charitable Humanists are moral in their own ways, they can be painfully misdirected, and often entirely unintegrated. Their ideas of right and wrong are almost totally culturally conditioned without a religious system in place to cause any questioning of their assumptions.

Further, there are times when certain morals (such as pity) that are practised in isolation become problem causers. An example was given by Robert Bork, who pointed out how misguided liberal charity was when coupled with liberal moral allowance. As freedoms multiply and moral requirements and taboos are loosened, we see a greater inequality of outcomes. Those who use their freedoms for profit and progress profit more and more, while those who use their freedoms for vice and dead-end idealistic endeavors fall further and further behind. In the meantime, the insistance that society continually provides support for those who have fallen behind ensures that we have an ever-widening class of people who are supported after misusing their freedoms, by those who used their freedoms wisely, without the latter being able to put any stipulations on their money for future charity.

Bork's example is only one among many. I remember working for a charitable NGO and thinking of how disassociated their sensibilities sometimes manifested. For instance, they were all about liberating sexual rights for individuals and also in favor of providing for treatments should people encounter difficulties from their behaviors (pregnancy, STD's, emotional damage, etc). But the group was far less inclined to say anything on the matter of properly governing the sexual behaviors in such a way that people might not suffer as frequently from those problems. So were they really loving? i'm not sure.

What I would say is that people have become single-minded in their notions of virtue. For one person, hard work is the ultimate virtue. For another it is pity and charity. For yet another the apex of human accomplishment is a superior education, or money. What binds many of them together is the lack of balance, and this is at the heart of Chesterton's point. His entire first chapter was devoted to the idea of "lunacy" being the result of single-mindedly pursuing one line of thought to its rational ends, but without being informed by other lines of thinking; other disciplines that might challenge single-disciplinary conclusions. He summed it up this way:

"...the circle of the moon is as clear and unmistakable, as recurrent and inevitable, as the circle of Euclid on a blackboard. For the moon is utterly reasonable; and the moon is the mother of lunatics and has given to them all her name."


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