Chesterton on “The Ethics of Elfland”

  This summer I’ve been reading some Chesterton. I’ve just finished The
Man Who Was Thursday (Salvo readers, any reviews?), but “The Ethics of
Elfland,” from Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, has always been a favorite of
mine. I’ve included some related excerpts below, but you can read the
entire essay here.

Chesterton suggests that the fairy tales of his youth, the ones that
instilled wonder and humility, have proved the most “sensible” of all
the stories he’s encountered; it is these “fairy tales,” not the lies
of materialism or romanticism, that form us to appreciate the good
order of God’s created world.

…we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the
ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when
we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need
tales. Mere life is interesting enough. A child of seven is excited by
being told that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon. But a child of
three is excited by being told that Tommy opened a door. Boys like
romantic tales; but babies like realistic tales–because they find
them romantic. In fact, a baby is about the only person, I should
think, to whom a modern realistic novel could be read without boring
him. This proves that even nursery tales only echo an almost pre-natal
leap of interest and amazement. These tales say that apples were
golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they
were green. They make rivers run with wine only to make us remember,
for one wild moment, that they run with water. I have said that this
is wholly reasonable and even agnostic. And, indeed, on this point I
am all for the higher agnosticism; its better name is Ignorance. We
have all read in scientific books, and, indeed, in all romances, the
story of the man who has forgotten his name. This man walks about the
streets and can see and appreciate everything; only he cannot remember
who he is. Well, every man is that man in the story. Every man has
forgotten who he is. One may understand the cosmos, but never the ego;
the self is more distant than any star. Thou shalt love the Lord thy
God; but thou shalt not know thyself. We are all under the same mental
calamity; we have all forgotten our names. We have all forgotten what
we really are. All that we call common sense and rationality and
practicality and positivism only means that for certain dead levels of
our life we forget that we have forgotten. All that we call spirit and
art and ecstasy only means that for one awful instant we remember that
we forget.

But though (like the man without memory in the novel) we walk the
streets with a sort of half-witted admiration, still it is admiration.
It is admiration in English and not only admiration in Latin. The
wonder has a positive element of praise. This is the next milestone to
be definitely marked on our road through fairyland. I shall speak in
the next chapter about optimists and pessimists in their intellectual
aspect, so far as they have one. Here I am only trying to describe the
enormous emotions which cannot be described. And the strongest emotion
was that life was as precious as it was puzzling. It was an ecstasy
because it was an adventure; it was an adventure because it was an
opportunity. The goodness of the fairy tale was not affected by the
fact that there might be more dragons than princesses; it was good to
be in a fairy tale. The test of all happiness is gratitude; and I felt
grateful, though I hardly knew to whom. Children are grateful when
Santa Claus puts in their stockings gifts of toys or sweets. Could I
not be grateful to Santa Claus when he put in my stockings the gift of
two miraculous legs? We thank people for birthday presents of cigars
and slippers. Can I thank no one for the birthday present of birth?

Well, I left the fairy tales lying on the floor of the nursery, and I
have not found any books so sensible since. I left the nurse guardian
of tradition and democracy, and I have not found any modern type so
sanely radical or so sanely conservative. But the matter for important
comment was here: that when I first went out into the mental
atmosphere of the modern world, I found that the modern world was
positively opposed on two points to my nurse and to the nursery tales.
It has taken me a long time to find out that the modern world is wrong
and my nurse was right. The really curious thing was this: that modern
thought contradicted this basic creed of my boyhood on its two most
essential doctrines. I have explained that the fairy tales founded in
me two convictions; first, that this world is a wild and startling
place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite
delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may well
be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a
kindness. But I found the whole modern world running like a high tide
against both my tendernesses; and the shock of that collision created
two sudden and spontaneous sentiments, which I have had ever since and
which, crude as they were, have since hardened into convictions.

The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they
find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his
legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because
children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce
and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They
always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until
he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult
in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It
is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and
every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic
necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every
daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be
that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and
grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature
may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE. Heaven
may ENCORE the bird who laid an egg. If the human being conceives and
brings forth a human child instead of bringing forth a fish, or a bat,
or a griffin, the reason may not be that we are fixed in an animal
fate without life or purpose. It may be that our little tragedy has
touched the gods, that they admire it from their starry galleries, and
that at the end of every human drama man is called again and again
before the curtain. Repetition may go on for millions of years, by
mere choice, and at any instant it may stop. Man may stand on the
earth generation after generation, and yet each birth be his
positively last appearance.

Citizens Gone Wild

. . .

So great is his individualism that he resents ever being told what to do, under any circumstances. He thus deems moderation a “want of manhood” and thriftiness “illiberal”; he dignifies license as “liberty” and shamelessness as “manly spirit” (560d–e). In such an unruly ethos, teachers fear and fawn upon their students; children have no reverence for parents, and servants none for masters; and even animals aggressively bump people in the street (563a–d). Ultimately, democratic men “pay no heed even to the laws written or unwritten, so that forsooth they may have no master anywhere over them” (563d). Democracy leads to anarchy, and thence to tyranny (562a ff.).

. . .

From the most recent issue of Salvo (Summer 2012), Cameron Wybrow looks at Plato’s Republic and discovers the disturbingly familiar characteristics of the unrestrained democratic man. That’s not the whole story though. Read the rest.

And I just stumbled upon this blog post at Had Enough Therapy? about some, uh, unrestrained democratic women. The post is referring to a reality TV show called Miss Advised:

Like it or not, these women demonstrate that liberation is an exercise in negativity. It is not about following rules. It’s about breaking rules. Two of the three make a point of saying that they do not know how to follow rules or to take advice, as though that is something to be proud of.

Of course, if your only rule is the ideological necessity to violate all the old rules, you are being defined, negatively, by the old rules. If you cannot calculate the real cost of such behavior, you are a zealot.

If the old rules told women to be demure and modest, these women are outrageously immodest.

You can read his review of the show here: Miss Advised: Living the Feminist Nightmare

The Mind is Willing but the Body is Unable

The Battle to Reclaim Free Will

Most neuroscientists today are materialists who believe that everything we do is determined. But this ignores our rationality and free will. There must be a better way.

An article from our friends at Mercatornet. I recommend it to you.

A few issues back Tom Gilson made some great points about this in the pages of Salvo. A very amusing read too.

Hunter-Gatherer Nut Cases: Let’s Just Reduce Our Altruism, Morals & Love to Brain Waves

I opened up “The End of Morality,” Discover magazine’s latest article on ethics and the brain (July/August 2011),1 and I wondered, “Will this be any different from the others?” Articles on this topic seem to follow a consistent pattern: (1) Researchers can pinpoint physical events taking place in people’s brains when they make ethical decisions. (2) Thus, science is discovering, finally, what ethics is all about: it’s chemistry and electricity doing their chemical and electrical thing inside your skull. And that’s it.

It’s an approach many thinkers call reductionist. Reductionism in this context means that crucial aspects of human experience, like consciousness, love, ethical decisions, the ability to make choices (free will), and so on are best understood as biological processes, which in turn are best understood in terms of chemistry and physics. It’s a matter of bringing down—reducing—these things to the lowest level of physical explanation.

According to reductionism, in fact, the only real thing going on is what happens at the level of chemistry and physics. Everything else—whether it’s an ethical decision, a seemingly free choice, the love we feel for that special someone, whatever we think makes us human—is just a by-product. Some say everything but chemistry and physics is an illusion. So society is an illusion? Love is just a neuron in heat?

read the rest . . .

What is Salvo?

I have been updating the ABOUT page on the Salvo website with bios for senior editors and other key members of the Salvo team. After taking a closer look at that page, I decided it was also a good time to update what could be called our mission statement:

Debunking the cultural myths that have undercut human dignity, all but destroyed the notions of virtue and morality, and slowly eroded our appetite for transcendence. Recovering the one worldview that actually works.

It’s catchy, but I also think it’s pretty much just teaser text at best. It doesn’t really give you anything concrete to go on. Being the graphic designer and web guy for Salvo since the beginning, I thought the magazine needed something a little more clear. But not being a professional ad copy writer (unless you count fake ads), I also needed some help coming up with something that would work.

I decided to ask frequent Salvo writer and contributing editor Terrell Clemmons for any suggestions she had for Salvo‘s mission statement. She reminded me of an editorial that Jim Kushiner wrote for issue 11 titled “Why We Fight” that, for her, summed up Salvo perfectly. While this article was originally intended to be an introduction to that specific issue (Winter ’09), I too think that the piece holds up as, well, a sort of salvo for Salvo.

While the magazine seems to make a lot of people scratch their head, I’ve always thought that the mission of the magazine was pretty obvious to anyone who browsed the website for even just a minute or two–a counter-cultural voice that seeks to point out that ideas have consequences, and that there are REASONS to, say, value chastity, or to question aspects of the Darwinian narrative, or to reject abortion. The current issue of Salvo deals with many of these things outright.

I encourage anyone who is curious about Salvo to read Why We Fight. And for further reading, check out Jim’s short introduction to issue 16: Got Whole Milk?.

Why We Fight

Critics of Salvo often complain about our quasi-military language. “Why not adopt a more irenic tone?” they say. My reply is that we use these terms, albeit figuratively, to describe our engagement in the realm of ideas against an aggressor. Now, some people don’t fancy a fair fight. We do.

Salvo seeks to defend truths that have shaped the civilization that can best, if imperfectly, ensure freedom for man to flourish as he was meant to. Those last two words, “meant to,” are crucial. For we believe man has a given nature and purpose. In keeping with the Declaration of Independence, for example, we hold certain truths to be self-evident, because they are “in the nature of things” and not subjective “values.” These include certain inalienable rights that come from the Creator, not from the state.

continue reading . . .

And if you want to subscribe, you can do so HERE.

On Listening: Intern 2 Tries to Communicate with the Guy Who Knows He’s Right (Even if He’s Wrong)

(This week, Intern 2, who is overly shy of face-to-face disagreement, springboards from current events to wax long on the subject of persuasion.)

We have a pink elephant here on the Salvo Blog whose presence we have yet to point out.

It’s called the Affordable Care Act, or whichever nickname you’d prefer to give it.

I am far from a legal, or economic, or medical expert. You do not want me to analyze the bill itself, its implications, or the details or outcomes of last week’s ruling by the Supreme Court. There are experts who have already provided that analysis, or at least such an analysis as is possible at this early stage.

Many, many analyses have been made and opinions been stated.

Obviously, they have not all arrived at the same conclusions. Chances are, right now you’re dealing with someone whose conclusions are not the same as yours.

So this is Harrison, your colleague of whatever philosophical persuasion who is one-hundred percent sure he’s come down on the right side of the issue, and isn’t afraid to tell you about it.

It could be that Harrison’s convinced that the health care decision represents a key triumph for the social virtue of the United States. He knows a few cases personally who have had trouble paying for medical care under the current system, or he’s had trouble himself (and comments that he simply won’t pay the bills he can’t afford—he says that eventually, they’ll stop coming). He knows, and he’ll tell you, that there’s no way the eventual enactment of the ACA as law could possibly be problematic, and if you suggest otherwise, he’ll assume you must necessarily be looking at the issue from a perspective of privilege. In other words, you’re a lost cause.

And how do you, or more accurately, we, answer Harrison effectively?

To start with, we have to listen to him.

It could also be that Harrison’s convinced that the health care decision represents the cataclysmic end of the American Experiment. He sees the infringements on personal liberties that the ACA contains within itself and could open the door to in the future. He knows, and he’ll tell you, that this has placed us on the brink of an inevitable disastrous threat to our autonomy of conscience, and if you see reason for hope in the details of the Supreme Court’s decision or the relative unpopularity of the Act’s most objectionable sections, he’ll assume your reason has been already been decayed by the regressive force of a Progressive culture. In other words, you’re a lost cause.

And how do we answer Harrison effectively?

To start with, we have to listen to him.

Harrison is a fellow human with a heart and a brain, with a mind and a soul. He has a story. He has some form of reason for believing what he has come to believe. As humans, we are given the capacity to understand and empathize with other humans. It fulfills a basic principle for us to work toward understanding and empathizing with Harrison.

Of course, as is the case with fulfilling other basic principles, this is easier said than done. It would be extremely challenging for me personally if Harrison told me that, as a woman, it behooved me not to post my thoughts and opinions in a public forum. I’m working on it. Harrison is like me a creature of God.

Also, knowing how someone got to where they got to is the first and most vital step in honestly and compassionately helping them get somewhere else.

So we listen to Harrison. We learn about him, and, in turn, Harrison will be more likely to listen and learn about us.

I have a story about my own Harrison, who happened to be female. I was relating a story to Girl Harrison about an acquaintance who, right on the verge of finishing a professional degree, had accepted a job in her field and was planning to marry her fiancé the following year. I happened to run into the acquaintance very shortly, possibly immediately, after she discovered she was pregnant (she was visibly shaken when I spoke with her. It ought to go without saying that the fiancé was the father.)

“She was really stressed,” I told Girl Harrison, “Because now she was planning the wedding for, like, the next month, and then they were moving out of state. So everything would have to happen at once.”

“So?” Girl Harrison said. “Just get an abortion.”

I hadn’t expected that response at all. The option in this instance hadn’t occurred to me. It hadn’t occurred to the acquaintance.

“But they already had everything together,” I said. “It was just going to be rough for a few months.”

“I’d just get an abortion,” Girl Harrison said.

I’ve since come to regret how quickly I changed the subject.

I didn’t have the courage to listen to Girl Harrison, as would be necessary to engage in a discussion with her. I knew her well enough to understand where some of her other points of view might have come from. But this assertion I left at the surface. I didn’t think I had the emotional energy or intellectual capacity to grapple with Girl Harrison on the subject of abortion, so I left it alone.

I didn’t get the chance to respond as I would have liked, as might have been effective. I didn’t get to say, “But it was the first child, by the man she was planning to have her children with. The unique and only first child. The DNA codes were all there. It was worth a few rough months.”

I think Girl Harrison would have listened to that answer. But if I was afraid to listen to her beyond her first declaration, why would I expect she would listen to me?

From now on, let’s listen. Let’s listen first. Then we can take a deep breath and give an answer that responds to what we listened to. We might be surprised. We might discover new dimensions of an issue that we hadn’t been aware were there. Harrison might prove to be as right as he thinks, or he might be only .001% sure he’s right at all. And while our own assurances may be altered through their questioning, the true assurances will be strengthened by it.

It is worthwhile to listen to Harrison, and worthwhile to answer him as well.

So thank you for listening to me.

Your answers are welcome.

Sincerely Yours,

Intern 2

Of Thee I Sing

Today July 2nd , in 1776, the Second Continental Congress voted unanimously to claim independence and break from Great Britain. New York was the only colony to have abstained its vote.

The resolution for independence from Great Britain had originally been presented to the Second Continental Congress on June 7th after it had convened in Philadelphia. But as several colonies (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and South Carolina) remained reticent to break with England, the vote was put off until July.

Salvo readers, you should all watch the HBO miniseries John Adams ( directed by Tom Hooper) in order to witness the ensuing drama, which stars Paul Giamatti as John Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams. As demonstrated in the miniseries, Congress designated a specific committee to draft a declaration of independence when the vote was delayed; John Adams was among the members of the draft committee, but the group also included Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Robert R. Livingston of New York and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. The primary author of this draft was Thomas Jefferson; the declaration was presented to Congress at the end of June.

John Adams predicted that July 2nd would be celebrated as the most memorable day in the history of America. But, this week we will celebrate our nation’s origins on Wednesday the 4th of July, the day Congress approved Jefferson’s edited Declaration of Independence.

Happy Independence Day Salvo readers!