Greek heroes do not grin: but gargoyles do – because they are Christian.
Christ prophesied the whole of Gothic architecture in that hour when nervous and respectable people…objected to the shouting of the gutter-snipes of Jerusalem. He said, “If these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”
The prophecy has been fulfilled as far as Chesterton is concerned, as seen in the gargoyles of the many gothic churches in Europe.
There is an appropriate end, or purpose, for a human life. It is not random, as must be the case for the evolutionists. It is this that Chesterton argues in this chapter. Moderns argue that we must make things better, or good. But when asked what this means, they talk in circles:
Evolution is only good if it produces good; good is only good if it helps evolution.
We cannot take our principles from nature – the nature we see around us – because there is no principle in nature. We do not get equality from nature, nor do we get inequality. Both require a standard of value, but what is the standard of value offered to us by nature? Can nature tell us that cats are more valuable than mice (or one cat more valuable than the next)?
Hence, evolutionists are left to identify their doctrine of good without a standard to lean on. Nietzsche is described as offering nothing but physical metaphors. When he said “beyond good and evil,” he avoided the need to say more clearly “more good than good and evil” or “more evil than good and evil.” Had he done so, this idea would have been exposed as nonsense.
So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, “the purer man,” or “the happier man,” or “the sadder man,” for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says “the upper man,” or “over man,” a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being “higher,” do not know either.
These others then come up with even sillier notions: whatever evolution brings was right, what was avoided was wrong; or whatever I want is right, and whatever I don’t want is wrong. Reason, as Hume put it, is slave to these passions. It is in this way that we progress – that we might be progressing down the wrong road is the question avoided.
Instead, we might consider reform. To reform means something that was in form is now out of shape; the intention is to put it back in shape again. Reform is the proper task for reasonable and determined men.
And this is where the modern world has gone awry. Progress should mean that we are changing things to suit a vision; instead, progress has now been taken to mean that the vision always changes – driven by our passions or desires. We have freed ourselves to the extent that every day brings a new vision, a new “good,” a new end to be the pursuit of man.
As long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same. No ideal will remain long enough to be realized, or even partly realized. The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will always change his mind.
This, then, points to a requirement if one is to discuss progress: the objective must be fixed. An artist might remain discontented with his pictures, yet not become discontented with his art. A simple example will suffice: a man has as his objective to paint the world blue. Every day he makes progress, painting a blade of grass, a tree, a patch of dirt. Each one blue. It is unlikely that he will achieve his objective in his lifetime, but that he has made progress can be easily seen and measured.
But what if each day he decides on a new color: today, his objective is to paint the world blue, tomorrow green, the next day orange, and so on. Can it ever be said that he is making progress? Is his perfect world coming closer into view?
Thus we may say that a permanent ideal is as necessary to the innovator as to the conservative; it is necessary whether we wish the king’s orders to be promptly executed or whether we only wish the king to be promptly executed.
And with this, Chesterton felt a presence of something else in the discussion (keeping in mind that this entire book documents his realization that what he discovered was already in Christianity): “My ideal is at least fixed; for it was fixed before the foundations of the world.” This fixed ideal cannot be altered; it is called Eden. And for those orthodox who understand this of the ideal, there is always revolution:
In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell.
This understanding offers a fixed ideal at which one can aim. It offers a single morality. Darwinism offers no such possibility – only offering two mad moralities, but not a single sane morality: when considering the kinship and competition that exists among and between all creatures, one can choose to be either insanely cruel or insanely sentimental:
That you and a tiger are one may be a reason for being tender to a tiger. Or it may be a reason for being as cruel as the tiger. It is one way to train the tiger to imitate you, it is a shorter way to imitate the tiger. But in neither case does evolution tell you how to treat a tiger reasonably, that is, to admire his stripes while avoiding his claws.
Evolution tells us it is a dog-eat-dog world; but this is a world not even fit for dogs. Christianity tells us that Nature is our sister, not our mother. We can be proud of her beauty, as we both come from the same Father. She has no authority over us – we are to admire, but not imitate.
An impersonal force could be leading us to a flat plain or a perfect peak; but only a personal God can lead you to a well-designed and properly proportioned city, painted just the right colors.
Twice again, therefore, Christianity had come in with the exact answer that I required. I had said, “The ideal must be fixed,” and the Church had answered, “Mine is literally fixed, for it existed before anything else.” I said secondly, “It must be artistically combined, like a picture”; and the Church answered, “Mine is quite literally a picture, for I know who painted it.”
Which led Chesterton to the third requirement: utopia must be guarded; we must have watchfulness, else we will fall as we fell from Eden. If you want a white post to remain white, you must regularly tend to it, painting it white regularly. Without this attention, it will soon enough turn black. It is the same with human institutions: without this vigilance, they quickly corrupt and grow old.
But, as a fact, men have almost always suffered under new tyrannies; under tyrannies that had been public liberties hardly twenty years before. …There is no fear that a modern king will attempt to override the constitution; it is more likely that he will ignore the constitution and work behind its back; he will take no advantage of his kingly power; it is more likely that he will take advantage of his kingly powerlessness, of the fact that he is free from criticism and publicity.
And in this, Chesterton saw, once again, the wisdom found in Christianity: men were always backsliders; human virtue, left unguarded, would always rot; vigilance was always necessary. It is only Christianity that has the right to question the power of the powerful, the well-nurtured and well-bred.
If more money will make the poor better, then who among us can be better than the rich – for having the most money of all? Only Christianity offers an answer to this question: even the rich are backsliders. The danger is not man’s environment; the danger is in man – every man.
The rich cannot pass as easily as a camel through the eye of the needle. In this, Christ offered that the rich might be the least trustworthy of all. We cannot rely on the possibility that a rich man cannot be bribed; instead, we are faced with the reality that he has been bribed already. Being dependent on the luxuries of life, he is a corrupt man: spiritually, politically, and financially.
It was only in Christian Europe where the rich man was not seen as a better man; both rich and poor are made in the image of God, neither more sacred. A duke could be damned just the same as his serf.
When the ordinary opponents of Socialism talk about impossibilities and alterations in human nature they always miss an important distinction. In modern ideal conceptions of society there are some desires that are possibly not attainable: but there are some desires that are not desirable.
It is not merely the means that are important, the means that must be guarded. There are some ends that are not at all desirable – in fact, are quite harmful. Discovering proper ends is even more important and deserves far more defense than safeguarding the means. Means cannot be safeguarded if ends are set free.
That all men should live in equally beautiful houses is a dream that may or may not be attained. But that all men should live in the same beautiful house is not a dream at all; it is a nightmare.
And this leads Chesterton to his ideal for utopia:
I could never conceive or tolerate any Utopia which did not leave to me the liberty for which I chiefly care, the liberty to bind myself.
Chesterton would bind himself to this fixed objective, this fixed end. This must be done in order to achieve liberty. It is a liberty toward a proper end. And for this, I return to Alexandr Solzhenitsyn:
A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities.
Is there a higher liberty than the liberty to achieve the highest level of human possibilities? Is such an achievement possible if one’s objective is ever-changing, never fixed? Can anything be achieved in such a state?
The answers to these questions keep bringing me back to natural law.
Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.