Friday was the anniversary of Chesterton’s death, the religious blogosphere is eulogizing him, and I thought I’d join in. I enjoyed and recommend Chesterton’s novels, especially The Man Who Was Thursday and Napoleon of Notting Hill, his works of nonfiction like Heretics, and even his poems (all of these are links to freely available fulltext versions online).
Classical philosophy holds that evil is merely the absence of good, but for me, at least, the opposite reduction is more tempting (albeit just as wrong). Evil is extremely obvious – you can look at people involved in animal cruelty, or bullying, or whatever, and you can almost see the actively malicious force animating them onward. On the other hand, good is most easily perceived as unusual skill at avoiding evil. Vegetarians are unusually good because they take extra effort to avoid hurting animals, people who donate to charity are unusually good because they take extra effort to avoid greed.
I credit three authors with giving me a visceral understanding of active, presence-rather-than-absence Good: G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, and Jacqueline Carey. Two of those are very religious and write quite consciously from a Christian perspective. The third writes about kinky sex. Go figure.
But actually when I think about it more closely, the moral beauty in Carey’s writing comes mostly from her constructed religion, which is suspiciously similar to Christianity. So it seems that there’s a fact to be explained here.
Can an atheist appreciate Chesterton? A better question might be whether an atheist can happily appreciate Chesterton as offering a beauty that she, too, can partake in, or whether the appreciation must be along the lines of “Yup, these are the nice things we can’t have.”
Keep The Horse Before The Cart
So I think an important point to make before going any further is that, through 90% of Christian history G. K. Chesterton and C. S. Lewis probably would have been burnt at the stake.
Not just for denominational reasons, although that would have been enough. Promoting joy as a sign of sanctity and as a proper state for man – that’s a burning for the Epicurean heresy right there. Believing righteous non-Christians could get into Heaven – that’s a burning. A suggestion that that humor and lightness were chief attributes of God and the angels – more burning. Doubting the literal truth of some of the Old Testament? Uncertainty whether the New Testament was divinely inspired in a more-than-metaphorical all-great-art-is-divinely-inspired way? Claims that praying sincerely to false gods was praiseworthy and basically just another way of praying to God? Burning, burning, burning.
The moral qualities that shine in Lewis and Chesterton – joy, humor, a love of the natural world, humanity, compassion, tolerance, willingness to engage with reason – are all qualities they inherited from modernity which would be repugnant to many of their Christian predecessors. They are all totally within the milieu of early 20th century England and totally foreign to medieval Italy or ancient Judea.
St. Augustine could not have written The Great Divorce, because while Lewis was talking about how the blessed in Heaven suffer great hardship to meet the damned in order to radiate love and wisdom at them and help bring them to Heaven, Augustine was writing about how the greatest pleasure of the blessed was getting to watch the tortures of the damned, metaphorically munching popcorn as they delighted in sinners getting what they deserved. Tertullian didn’t even wait until after he died to start getting delighted, famously saying that:
“At that greatest of all spectacles, that last and eternal judgment how shall I admire, how laugh, how rejoice, how exult, when I behold so many proud monarchs groaning in the lowest abyss of darkness; so many magistrates liquefying in fiercer flames than they ever kindled against the Christians; so many sages and philosophers blushing in red-hot fires with their deluded pupils; so many tragedians more tuneful in the expression of their own sufferings; so many dancers tripping more nimbly from anguish then ever before from applause.”
What Lewis, Augustine, and Tertullian had in common was Christianity; what set Lewis apart was modernity. What made C. S. Lewis saintly, as opposed to the horrifying sadists who actually got the “St.” in front of their names, was the perspective of a culture that had just spent a few centuries thinking about morals from a humanistic perspective.
When Pope Francis said that we need to build a “culture of life” that can protect innocent children from harm, he wasn’t taking a revelation from the Biblical angels but from the Better Angels Of Our Nature. The Biblical angels are the ones who would be tasked with enforcing God’s promise of blessing on anyone who takes Babylonian infants and smashes them against rocks (Psalm 137:9, look it up).
During the tradition from the Dark Ages to modernity, people got technologies like the printing press and the frigate and started learning more about other cultures, seeing that they were decent people and that no one religion had a monopoly on morality. The decline in infectious diseases banished death from an everyday presence to a lurking evil and made casual slaughter seem less appealing; the gradual decline in war resensitized people to violence. And all this time there were philosophers inventing things like deontology and consequentialism and freedom and equality and humanism and saying that yes, people did have inherent moral worth. And religion eventually decided that if it couldn’t beat them it might as well join them, at least to a degree, and it was this concession that allowed the moral decrepitude of people like Tertullian and Torquemada to evolve into the moral genius of people like Chesterton and Lewis.
So my thesis is that Lewis and Chesterton didn’t become brilliant moralists by revealing the truths of Christianity to a degraded modern world. They became great moralists by taking the better parts of the modern world, dressing them up in Christian clothing, and handing them back to the modern world, all while denouncing the worse parts of the modern world as “the modern world”.
And so rah humanism and all that. But the original question remains: what is it about the Christian clothing that is such a necessary ingredient?
A Cupboard Full Of Secret Ingredients
First of all, the power of myth.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all three of the people I named as influences on my sense of moral beauty were writers of speculative fiction. Fiction has greater opportunity to be beautiful and to show complicated internal dynamics of humanity than abstruse philosophy or dry preaching does, and speculative fiction has a better opportunity to present superstimuli, including moral superstimuli. I think that people who write speculative fiction ordinarily tend to be kind of dismissed, but that because Lewis and Chesterton were working from within a tradition that had its own myths, they managed to get through the filter of “Oh, it’s just fantasy, ignore it”. Narnia was dignified by being a metaphor for the Bible, which earned its dignity through hoary age and civilizational influence.
Second of all, legitimacy.
I sometimes write about morality. It tends to be in a light-hearted “here’s what I think” style, first of all because I’m genuinely uncertain about a lot of stuff, second of all because I don’t want to sound preachy. Religion is really good at helping people be certain of things, and religious people get a free pass to sound preachy because preaching is what religions are supposed to do.
I don’t think there’s a niche for non-religious versions of Chesterton and Lewis. There are people like that New York Times ethics columnist who talk about ethics, but I think if they were to start getting poetic about it, people would start challenging their right, be like “Who told you what is or isn’t necessary for the integrity of the human spirit?” This is a tough question. But Lewis and Chesterton have a great answer: “God did”. They can, as the Bible puts it, “speak like one who has confidence”.
Third of all, a different perspective.
You can seem deep just by saying something different than everyone else does. I don’t think Lewis and Chesterton were too far from the modern moral mainstream, but I think they use a completely different aesthetic. Where most people talk about the bravery of defying the mainstream, a Christian writer can talk about the bravery of not defying the mainstream when everyone thinks you should. Where most people talk about the importance of high self-esteem, a Christian writer can talk about taking care to avoid pride. Both sides have valid and important insights, but if a culture is doing everything it can to saturate you with one of them, the other will be a powerful breath of fresh air.
Chesterton – I haven’t yet noticed this in Lewis – has this sort of gambit where he agrees with some modern virtue, and then says the correct way to attain the modern virtue is through doing the opposite of the modern virtue. Or maybe the opposite, where he agrees with what we should be doing, but then says the end goal is exactly the opposite of what everyone would think:
The outer ring of Christianity is a rigid guard of ethical abnegations and professional priests; but inside that inhuman guard you will find the old human life dancing like children, and drinking wine like men; for Christianity is the only frame for pagan freedom.
People make fun of this, and rightly so (Steven Kaas attributes to Chesterton’s dog the quote “Arf arf arf! Not because arf arf! But exactly because arf NOT arf!”) but I think it is fundamental to his project. He gets to maintain his belief in modern virtues while getting there through an unexpected path that seems deep and profound and unexpected.
Fourth of all, a focus on the individual.
Despite everything everyone says about modern society being too individualistic, there seems to be a sense in which the opposite is true. The problems we are comfortable talking about are ones like racism, sexism, income inequality, terrorism, crime. Social problems. Problems in the community. The idea of talking about what goes on in the individual soul, of having strong opinions about it, isn’t a very modern sensibility at all. The only exception are psychologists and therapists, who really want to be scientific and so scrupulously avoid sounding poetic.
I could come up with some just-so stories about why this is – we like to think scientifically, but intrapersonal dilemmas don’t lend themselves to this kind of analysis? Focus on individuals doesn’t generalize well, which is a problem in the age of mass media? Christians were abnormally obsessed with the individual soul because of virtue ethics + the idea of damnation and salvation? I’m not sure. Anyway, religion has a head start on individualist vocabulary and thought processes which non-religion doesn’t really have good alternatives for (PSYCHODYNAMICS DOES NOT COUNT AS A GOOD ALTERNATIVE).
All of these are kind of banal and not the sort of thing that could prevent an atheist from fully appreciating Chesterton. But then there’s the big one.
What Lewis, Chesterton, and Carey have in common is this belief in Good as an active, vibrant, force, in Good being not just powerful, but so powerful that it’s kind of terrifying. As something not just real, but the most real thing.
Atheists can have Good be terrifying – utilitarianism has broken much stronger minds than my own – but it’s really hard to have it be real. I’m not saying atheists can’t believe in Good, just that atheist good is a sort of – I hate this term but I’ll use it anyway – social construct. It’s real in the same sense the US Government is real. The US Government is certainly powerful – just ask any Iraqi. But it’s not one thing, with an essence and a personality and angel wings of red-white-and-blue fire. It’s just an abstraction over a lot of ordinary people doing their thing.
And this would seem to be the death blow for atheists having something as strong and convincing as a Lewisian or Chestertonian world-view. Except that I kind of picked up a similar vibe from Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. I didn’t think of it when I was naming the three authors who first made me think of Good as a thing, but it is another work that portrays Good as this burning, all-powerful force, and although it has some magic in it, it doesn’t go all the way to reinventing Christianity like Carey does.
I’m not sure whether this is sleight-of-pen, whether it only works because of the magic there because even if the magic and morality aren’t explicitly linked it still triggers sort of morality-is-magic circuits. Or whether it only works if you’re literally responsible for saving the world. But it seems encouraging.
I think the truth of Lewis and Chesterton is not only appreciatable by atheists but derives from humanist ideas. The beauty of Lewis and Chesterton I’m not sure about, but I maintain some hope that it can be saved as well, even if I’m not sure how to do it.