Chapter 5: The Flag of the World
I have been called a pessimist many times. I dislike the label, not because it’s untrue, but because the formulation itself seems too blunt a way characterize anyone’s worldview. I know that I’m not the first person to balk at the commonly asked question: “Is life good?”, but it’s probably worthwhile to reiterate that the question doesn’t have a meaningful answer. Life is neither all-together good nor bad. As such, the very Manichean labels of optimism and pessimism fall flat.
Nevertheless, as each lives his or her life, we express an attitude towards the goodness (or badness) of existence. Despite our best intentions, we slide into a habitual perspective of optimism or pessimism. It is this attitude, not our more subtle philosophical beliefs, that is most obvious in our interactions with other people. It is almost as if optimism and pessimism are psychological groves arrived at through a slow course of entropy. Without realizing it, we naturally become one or the other.
Orthodoxy’s fifth chapter The Flag of the World starts at the divide between optimism and pessimism, and, in typical form, attempts to cut a fiery swath across its center. As Gilbert would have it, both the optimistic and pessimistic attitudes are destructive. If life is a battle (and to Chesterton, almost everything was a battle) both optimism and pessimism are terrible detractions from the effectiveness of life’s platoons. To Chesterton a pessimist is not simply a curmudgeon, but a dangerous pseudo-traitor who may demoralize the front line with the repetition of bad news. Moreover, the optimist is not simply a harmless Pollyanna but a fool-hardy jingo who might, with utmost patriotism, send the soldiers charging to a hopeless and inglorious death.
What Chesterton feels is needed is not a compromise but a combination and enhancement of both opposing parties. The darkest pessimism must be set against the most opalescent optimism and both instincts must shine through with their full strength. To this effect, all Pagan philosophies have failed either by being dominated by the pessimistic (Buddhism and Stoicism), dominated by the optimistic (Shintoism and Pagan nature-worship), or watered down by compromise (Confucianism and Platonism). Here Christianity has provided the solution. By envisioning God, not as an underlying spiritual force, but as a creator, Christianity formed a metaphysics which allowed both optimism and pessimism to combine and strengthen one another. With a God apart from the universe, a Christian can recognize a world beset by evil and still understand the fundamental purpose of life to be good. Again, extending the initial military analogy, Chesterton says:
“The optimist could pour out all the praise he liked on the gay music of the march, the golden trumpets, and the purple banners going into battle. But he must not call the fight needless. The pessimist might draw as darkly as he chose the sickening marches or the sanguine wounds. But he must not call the fight hopeless.”
With a righteous God looking over a flawed world, the Christian can fight the hopeless battle with all the spirit of someone certain of victory.
I think the military analogies pervading the chapter were somewhat lost on our local reading group. Developing a “fanatical patriotism” for existence seemed a little too jingoistic and I could tell the group was searching for a slightly more modern analogy. The best the group could come up with was the tried and true “Don’t Throw the Baby out with the Bathwater”. Though effective at conveying the need to preserve two opposite instincts, I couldn’t shake the feeling that, had Chesterton been present, he would have strongly taken offense at such a milquetoast analogy
Strangely, but perhaps not too strangely for a Newman group, the discussion of loyalty towards existence digressed into a discussion concerning the loyalty of Catholics to the Catholic Church. Perhaps a little off topic, but, as the conversation progressed, I could see the connection. The Church itself has its optimists and pessimists. The pessimists use any malfeasance in the Church’s governance to damn its entire enterprise; while the optimists apologize for any Church misdeed regardless of its implicit evil. Here the manifest wrongness of both perspectives fell into sharp relief. Moreover, compromise between the two seemed quite ridiculous. I have had my fill of those trying to present the Catholic Church as entirely innocent or entirely evil, but I think would feel even more offended at the suggestion that the Church of Christ had license to commit a little, but not too much evil.
Here, I should first confess my own optimism towards the Church. The Church is the chief critic of the of the world and the self as they are; for a pessimist like myself (lucidly aware of the short comings in both) the Church’s message offers an opportunity replace cynicism towards the world with enthusiasm for its critic. The opportunity to re-imagine my own pessimistic nature may be fun, but I admit it does little to enhance my own spiritual relationship with either life or faith. I can’t say I have never offered a flawed optimistic arguments for the Church only to push back against (what I saw as) more flawed pessimistic arguments against the Church. Moreover, I know that shouldn’t be using the Church’s doctrine on the fallen nature of man to justify my own hopelessness about the state of the world. Just as Chesterton describes, some furious combination and enhancement of these optimistic and pessimistic instincts is needed. It is the only way forward towards true spiritual progress.
But perhaps my dilemma might be understood by looking through the lens of love, not loyalty. I am reminded of an answer given by Flannery O’Connor in one of her letters concerning loving the Catholic Church in spite of its historical crimes.
“…the only thing that makes the Church endurable is that it is somehow the body of Christ and that on this we are fed. It seems to be a fact that you have to suffer as much from the Church as for it but if you believe in the divinity of Christ, you have to cherish the world at the same time that you struggle to endure it. ”
I always found her response quite odd since it started addressing the problems of the Church and ended addressing the problems of the world. Still, I have since come to understand O’Connors statement as the only satisfactory answer to the flawed nature of the world and the Church that seeks to heal it.
In the Church, as in the world, we see before us something that is tainted by evil, ragged with age and imperfection. The only question remaining is whether we embrace it or cast it out. Of course, if we feel love, the question is already answered. This is the love Christians see in the body of Christ crucified, and as such each Christian must endeavor to bring the same to the sinners of world even if those sinners are ourselves or our own church. Though it might sound ridiculously romantic to suggest that we should continuously strive to save the things we pessimistically see as hopeless or detect the hidden imperfections of that which we optimistically embrace; we must attempt such things in order to overcome our own pessimistic or optimistic limitations. This may be why the crucifix has universally come to symbolize Christian love. As difficult as it may be to see compassion in the tortured form of a dying man, we must still come before it to see our own imperfections. Performing this act of love is as difficult as any battle, but it is necessary, for the image of Christ crucified is the only thing that we might rightfully call the Flag of the World.