Thursday, December 10, 2009

YIMC Book Club, “Orthodoxy,” Chapter 4

Posted by Webster 
Earlier today, I posted the current membership roll. All are welcome to join the discussion, and if new readers leave a comment, they will be added to next week's roll. (Late breaking news: Turgonian, a student from the Netherlands with an exceptional blog, “Epigone's Eloquence,” has joined the YIMCBC. Welcome, Turgo!)

I think we're all finding Chesterton pretty heavy going, but I think you'll agree that that's more a function of his style than of his content. In each chapter, there seem to be two or three central ideas. The rest of it—the alliteration, the analogies, the endless word play—adds up to trimmings on the Chesterton family tree. That said, let me lay out a couple of basic ideas in the next chapter to get the discussion started.

Chapter 4, “The Ethics of Elfland”
It's tempting, living in 2009, to think we know more than those who lived in 209. From this side of the Enlightenment, everything prior seems like the Dark Ages, doesn't it?

That's one of the thoughts inspired by Chesterton's preamble to this chapter, in which he refers to tradition as “democracy extended through time” and as “the democracy of the dead.” This is the thing that has struck me most forcibly about Catholicism, that as a member of the Catholic Church, I join ranks with the entire communion of saints. For two thousand years, women and men have been living by these principles, modeling Christ, saying the same prayers, participating in the same Eucharistic Mystery, yes, even going to confession, as my fourth-graders did yesterday. It worked for them. Why wouldn't it work for me? Why wouldn't the truths that have stood the test of two millennia not still be true? As I have written in another context, how did we think we were so smart all of a sudden—replacing the democracy of the dead with the aristocracy of the assinine? (I think the only way to meet Chesterton is to fight alliteration with alliteration!)

Chesterton's ode to tradition takes up the first 15 percent, or so, of the chapter. (And in writing this, wasn't he saying yes to the Catholic Church, founded on tradition, years before he became a Catholic himself? I think he was.) The rest of the chapter is given over to Elfland. I think others will have better comments here. I frankly got a bit lost.

I did find this passage especially good:

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 ecstacy only means that for one awful instant we remember that we forget. 

Like many in Chesterton, this passage gives me something to think about for a long time—at least as long as it will take others to comment on “The Ethics of Elfland.” . . .