Back to blogging Orthodoxy. This time the third chapter entitled “The Suicide of Thought”. There is a new eagerness towards the material. A lot of the initial skepticism towards the style of early 20th century apologetics has worn off and people are more engaged. I notice that we are now a slightly smaller group. Perhaps there is a selection effect in play.
Chapter 3 : “The Suicide of Thought”
Orthodoxy’s third chapter is Chesterton’s grand broadside against “modern” philosophy. Being written more than a hundred years ago, it would seem that this chapter should need a fair amount of historical update. The odd thing is, with the exception of the names associated with various authors, Gilbert’s critique still holds. Has so little changed in a hundred years?
While the previous chapter focused on the problem’s with scientific determinism and its confinement of thought, in the third chapter Chesterton focuses his attack on pragmatism and its confinement of action. Pragmatism is modernism’s panacea for the fatalism inspired by materialism. With the loss of belief in a personal God and the adoption of a universal skepticism, what can inspire impassioned action? The Modernist sees practicality itself as a sort of escape from what would otherwise be a philosophy with no moral core; simply do your best for the common good and one can be moral. But pragmatism can mean many things to many people.
Pragmatism only has meaning relative to a value. Being minimalists as heart, the moderns were very fond of taking their favorite virtue and enthroning it as the standard for all human activity. In ancient-times philosophers described ethics as a balance, in the 19th century philosophers were fascinated by thinking of ethics as a singularity. Chesterton describes two of the most common forms of the pathology: the very humanitarian philosophy of Tolstoy which enthroned mercy as the primary human objective, and the very anti-humanitarian philosophy of Nietzsche who focused entirely on will. Each of theses two great thinkers of the 19th-century proposed a solution to the ethics-seeking skeptic: take a preferred ethical value, enthrone it as the ideal, and then pursue it pragmatically. But can ethical principles isolated from their source really lead to dynamic action?
Chesterton says no, but for reasons totally apart from what one might expect. The modernist philosophers are not consumed by fundamentalism, but frozen in indecision. The followers of Tolstoy are so dedicated to the idea of peace and withdrawal that they cannot engage with anything in the real world. Similarly followers of Nietzsche are frozen by an inability to call any particular action willful. All actions are derived from will, therefore the bravery of all actions seems equally magnificent and equally boring. In isolation, each philosophy becomes meaningless and so both thinkers remain sitting where they began contemplating the rightness of their favorite virtue but unable to move, even in their professed pragmatism.
In our reading group, what little skepticism remained towards Gilbert’s worldview faded by the end of this chapter. Although the attack on Tolstoy and Nietzsche (which I considered the highlight) didn’t hold much power for the group at large, Chesterton’s inspired call to practical action seemed enthralling. I think there is a general sentiment among most Christians (and especially most Catholics), that the modern world is frozen in apathy, indecision, and mental confusion. There is a general sentiment that the modern world, as it is, needs to be roused and unsettled. Society moves fast, but, like Alice’s Red queen, it never seems to go anywhere.
Here, Joan of Arc (which Chesterton introduces to contrast the modern thinkers) provided our group with a singular answer to modernity’s stasis. A saint like Joan, in the service of a personal God, did not have the problem of the philosopher enthralled to one single ideal. She could become the peasant and later become the warrior. She could become the general, and then later the martyr. There is an image of decision and bravery in Joan of Arc that simply cannot be glimpsed in the modernist philosophies because a nuanced and complex bravery cannot be exist in the absence of a personal God.
When reading through the chapter for the first time, the description of Tolstoy and Nietzsche meeting and then collapsing due to mental exhaustion conjured an image from my childhood. The image was that of Dr. Seus’s North-going Zax and South-going Zax: two creatures so obsessed with a particular idea of motion that they were effectively doomed to remain stationary forevermore. Though the Zax’s dilemma was due to meeting an adversary (and not indecision in the abstract), the fundamental point of the story was identical to Chesterton’s case in “The Suicide of Thought”. Only through the appreciation of different virtues can any progress in a single virtue be made.
This may be the reason why the ancient masters (who believed in a balance of different ethical principles) led to a flowering of thought; whereas the moderns are locked perpetually in that old 19th-century dilemma. It takes a belief in a multitude of different values to make progress. Of course, the very belief in this “golden mean” led Plato and Aristotle to a belief in God. The moderns, to reject God, rejected the mean in favor of a single supreme virtue. Once the core principle was rejected, however, no further progress could be made. The philosophical Zax stood stationary and the world passed them by.
It is, perhaps, the repetition of the mistake that allows Chesterton’s work to be fresh one hundred years after its initial publication. The North-going Zax of Nietzschism and the South-going Zax of Tolstoyism are still facing each other without progress or discernable change. Considering the nature of the stalemate, Chesterton’s biting critique may as well be etched in stone; in a hundred more years they will sill be there. Joan of Arc, on the other hand, has better places to be